Film: The Assistant

Writer/director Kitty Green’s The Assistant (2020) is a mesmerizing work of pure filmmaking. Jane (Julia Garner) is the low assistant on the totem pole for a high-powered entertainment industry executive, paying her dues as the first-in, last-out staffer in the office. Jane has merely one foot in the door of show business, her aspirations compelling her to tolerate the sketchy duties she undertakes on her boss’s behalf. But during the course of one long, demoralizing day, Jane finally reaches her limit, as her demanding, unseen boss’s behavior grows more abusive and she sees behind the sleazy curtain of her employer’s life.

The compelling allure of The Assistant is not so much its story, which escalates brilliantly to paint a picture it ultimately does not change or resolve—an appropriately realistic destination given the topical subject matter. But this film is less about where it goes than how it gets there. The Assistant‘s film technique is a joy to watch: a quiet slow-build of audio-visual puzzle pieces that gradually, suspensefully fill in the toxic backdrop of Jane’s work life. Creative use of sound, shot composition, and film editing paint an increasingly searing portrait of the situation, which keeps it primary antagonist entirely offstage—a smart storytelling decision that shields his villainy from scrutiny and oversight, even as his terrible power shapes every moment. The film relies almost single-handedly on Garner’s polished presence to carry the message, and it’s astute casting. Her quiet stoicism and composed facial expressions capture the lopsided power dynamic perfectly. She receives solid, mystery-enhancing support from Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins, who portray her jaded but sympathetic co-workers, and Matthew Macfadyen has a memorable appearance as the world’s worst HR director. But really this is Garner’s spotlight and Green’s directorial triumph, a scathing indictment of the film industry’s deeply damaging culture even as it richly celebrates the artistry and unique storytelling of the medium. Fantastic film.

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