The Assistant is a quiet, dry, despairing little movie about a recently hired office worker and how serious doubts about her workplace begin to seep into her point of view. In writer-director Kitty Green's first directorial feature, built around actor Julia Garner, we see and hear what Junior Assistant Jane (Garner) does, and filtered through Green's sensibility, it's a depressing portrait of contemporary times.
Jane's day begins before sunrise when an Uber (what else?) picks her up at her outer-borough home for the ride into Manhattan. The office is dark and empty when she arrives but Jane swings into action immediately, performing such menial chores as switching on the lights, making coffee, and tidying up the office of her boss. At one point, she kneels with a rag and spray cleanser bottle in front of the boss' couch, wiping away some sort of stain. The story has a documentary-style lack of exposition. Things simply happen, with very little explanation in dialogue
As the work day gets going we figure out what kind of company this is. Jane is making travel arrangements for the boss' trip to Los Angeles, and is copying screenplays and boxing up DVDs. From her phone calls and the offhand chatter between Jane's two aloof, superior-acting office mates (Noah Robbins and Jon Orsini), we come to understand that the unseen boss is an executive in the film business. We don't hear much explicit entertainment-biz talk from the other employees, mostly hushed comments and surreptitious snickers at some nearby target — perhaps the boss, who could be any one of the men in suits who file past Jane's desk.
The office is noticeably devoid of the usual playful chatter we see in lighthearted romantic movies about young women office workers in their first grown-up job. In fact almost no one, other than her two office mates, ever speaks directly to Jane in person — she's that low in the pecking order. Nevertheless, disturbing undercurrents are flowing through the business day and Jane can't help but notice. In her morning cleanup of the executive office she finds an earring on the floor and, later on, an embarrassed woman shows up to claim the lost item. Young, attractive women filter through the office to meet privately with the boss, and at one point he takes a long work break to visit a new hire (Mackenzie Leigh) at the hotel he has booked for her.
In a typical drama about women being victimized in a male-dominated workplace — say, the recent true story Bombshell — the problem gets laid out in front of us plainly and our main character has to deal with it. It doesn't happen that way with Jane. No one puts his hands on her or whispers innuendo in her ear, and yet, in performing her admin-assist tasks she appears to be enabling a corrupt corporate culture that rewards a man who has four or five residences, a wife and children, a complaining ex, an invitation to the White House (ahem), and unlimited sexual access to whatever young woman he fancies — as part of his line of work, of course. Jane is expected to go along without complaining.
The similarity to the Harvey Weinstein case is obvious. Filmmaker Green, a Australian native whose previous work in documentaries — Casting JonBenet; Ukraine Is Not a Brothel — has focused on the vulnerability of women, presents Jane as the unwitting accomplice of a sexual predator. He's not the first guy in the flesh-peddling racket to take advantage of the women he meets, and certainly not the last. In its cold examination of money, sex, and power, Green's provocative character study — a tough film without much of a crutch — resembles another shadowy tale of transactional hanky-panky in New York, Steven Soderbergh's high-priced-sex-worker story The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Jane the assistant views the transactions from the other side of the equation, and the revulsion she feels is etched on her face for all to see.