Jane (Julia Garner) is a freshly-minted graduate of Northwestern University who wants to be a film producer. Starting to work her way up in the entertainment business, she’s landed a job as a junior assistant to a power player, and makes of the best of long days spent on dreary tasks that typically fall to the low woman on the totem pole. These include making coffee, taking messages, arranging for plane tickets, and cleaning up after everyone else. Absorbing everyone else’s hostility is also part of the deal, and Jane is hyper-aware of the need to avoid giving offense. In an inspired bit of costume design, she frequently wraps herself up in a huge scarf as if hoping it will offer some protection from the hostility of her work environment.
So far, there’s nothing new to this story. If you want to make your way in a competitive business, you have to expect to pay your dues. Maybe it’s worse for women, maybe it’s worse for Jane in particular, but that’s the way things are. Sexism is so accepted at Jane’s workplace that it’s just background noise, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also an important part of the story. When the men in the office joke about never sitting on the couch in the boss’s office, you don’t have to think very hard to understand what they’re really saying. And if the boss reminds you of a certain well-known producer with initials H. W., that’s probably no coincidence, but there’s also no need to interpret this film so narrowly. The fact that this boss is never named and, like George Steinbrenner in Seinfeld, is never seen clearly, just make him seem more all-powerful and threatening.
Jane has seen several things that give her pause—including an earring found under said couch, and a pretty new assistant put up at a fancy hotel—and is still innocent to think that going through proper channels is a good idea, so she takes her concerns to a Human Resources representative played by Matthew Mcfadyen. In the best-written scene of the film, Mcfadyen demonstrates why his character has the job he does, and what role he plays in keeping everything just the way the boss likes it. One might say it takes a village to enable a predator. Additional bonus: if you didn’t already get it, after viewing this scene you’ll understand why so often no official complaint is filed despite large numbers of people knowing that laws both moral and civil are being broken.
Not a lot happens in The Assistant, at least not in the conventional sense of cinematic action, but the tight restrictions under which it operates just increase its emotional impact. The story is told very much from Jane’s point of view, and the main changes take place within her rather than in the world around her. Those who have experienced gaslighting will find this film particularly painful to watch, but will also appreciate that director Kitty Green understands just what an insidious technique it is. Gaslighting not only allows evil to flourish, it can also destroy anyone motivated to speak up about that evil, perhaps to the point where they just give up and drink the Kool-Aid along with everyone else. As George Winston learned in 1984, everyone’s ability to resist has its limits, and the resources of one person are dwarfed by those of the social system in which they live. | Sarah Boslaugh