REVIEW: ‘The Assistant’ (2020) is an Unflinching Look at Harassment in the Workplace

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“An eye-opening and uneasy watch”

The Assistant is a fiction film that feels like non-fiction. That is thanks to the low-key direction, but also thanks to director Kitty Green’s research based on anonymous interviews with professionals in the film industry and her own experiences. Green has crafted a very real and very horrifying look into what it’s like to serve powerful executives within a toxic workplace, which is spear-headed by an incredible performance from Julia Garner and great technical craft on display.

Garner is the titular assistant, Jane, who serves as a junior assistant to the boss of a film production company. Jane is the first one in the office and the last to go out. She makes coffee, orders lunch, photocopies screenplays, but also picks up stray pieces of jewelry from her boss’ office floor, scrubs his lounger clean and deals with his infuriated wife on the phone. The whole film takes place during one very long working day, and takes its time to focus on every micro-aggression made by colleagues and executives. In terms of the plot there isn’t much at all, but a lot of time is spent on the small, harrowing moments, to make them feel ginormous. As well as her boss shouting at her down the phone for interfering with personal matters, Jane has to deal with other executives giving her looks of disgust, colleagues handing off difficult tasks for her to deal with, and a HR employee (Matthew Macfadyen) who brutally dismisses her concerns. Even the minute details, such as a colleague leaving their coffee mug beside Jane to clean up, feel monumental in adding to the list of discriminative actions against her. 

Garner delivers a fantastic performance that makes you feel the anguish she goes through every day. Jane is good at her job and is confident in dealing with clients, but as the day goes on you see it in Jane’s eyes: the toll the job has on her and how tiring it is to deal with such a toxic workplace. A standout scene sees Jane approach the HR employee, Wilcock, about a certain issue, but he reveals to her just how deep the roots go when it comes to harassment in the industry. When the realisation that she is powerless hits Jane, it’s excruciating to watch. As a character, Jane doesn’t have much going on, we don’t know her that well other than knowing she is an aspiring producer who works incredibly hard at her job, but Garner makes you feel each painful moment. It almost feels like Jane is designed to have surface-level characteristics: a person who has lost her personality to the job and who doesn’t really exist in the eyes of her colleagues.

Julia Garner in The Assistant: sat in an office wearing a pink top, taken aback after hearing some news.
image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Outside of the performances, The Assistant utilises technical aspects to great effect. The camerawork isn’t flashy at all but is purposeful and enhances Jane’s experiences. When alone in the frame the camera is tight on Jane’s distraught face, but when with other characters she looks small and unimportant amongst them. A brilliant shot makes Jane look and feel small when typing an apologetic email to her abusive boss as two male colleagues loom over Jane, telling her what to type. Sound plays a massive role in telling Jane’s story as she picks up phone calls from her boss and his wife, but the sound design is also used to highlight even more micro-aggressions. There are several moments when other colleagues almost drown out Jane’s dialogue, and instances where we only ever hear her boss. In perhaps the film’s most terrifying detail, we never actually see Jane’s boss. We hear his laughter, his screams and even catch a glimpse of his outline, but we never see his face. Much like the executives and other powerful figures in reality, the boss in The Assistant is untouchable but always lurking in the background and doing as he pleases. 

The Assistant is an eye-opening and uneasy watch because it is purposefully rooted in realism. Thankfully the film never becomes melodramatic, but still manages to make every micro-aggressive action feel macro. Green does important work here: showing exactly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a powerful figure enabled by the industry to do what they want, but also shows how people are coerced into silence and are conditioned to deal with the abuse.    

Written/Directed by: Kitty Green

Produced by: Kitty Green, James Schamus, Scott Macaulay, P. Jennifer Dana, Ross Jacobson

Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh, Kristine Froseth, Noah Robbins, Jon Orsini

Available on: various streaming platforms