“Art imitates life.” It is a clichéd phrase that you often hear said at film awards nights. It is a nice sentiment, but perhaps not always true. Unless your next-door neighbour drives to work in a Batmobile or you’re studying to become an Avenger then cinema is certainly one art form that has not imitated life for the past decade.
It is for that reason that films like The Assistant have become such a valuable commodity in the cinematic landscape. This is literally a film “plucked from the headlines” and for a film with a very dialogue it sure says a lot about a toxic practice that thankfully looks like is finally coming to an end not in Hollywood studios but in workplaces right across the world.
Directed and written by Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not A Brothel) The Assistant started life as an idea for a documentary. But as Green explored the topic of sexual harassment and sexual pressure in the work-place the idea soon turned into her debut scripted feature. The plot is told through the eyes of Jane (Julia Garner – Ozark) the assistant to a powerful executive. While her day is normally filled up with making coffees and creating spreadsheets it is littered with her (and her colleagues) having to sit back and watch as her boss ‘entertains’ a number of women on company time.
When she is put in the awkward situations of having to lie to his wife while he is with other women, entertain the children from his ‘secret family’ and then un-willingly partake in the ‘grooming’ of a young newcomer to the company Jane must make a decision on whether she is going to do something about the abuse or remain silent as usual.
In fact The Assistant goes further than sexual abuse and it also explores a toxic power-dominated culture in which the executive’s other assistants – played brilliantly by Noah Robbins (Miss Sloane) and Jon Orsini (Beneath) – also fear for their jobs so much that they hastily apologise at any time they share a difference of opinion to their boss. In nearly every scene depicting the three assistants you can see the air of nervousness and anxiety that fills the room day in and day out.
What makes The Assistant such an engaging film to watch is the fact that Green pretty much shoots this film the way she would have if she was telling the story in a documentary. This is very much a fly-on-the-wall type of film, you will see long scenes of Jane doing mundane tasks like washing dishes but that only makes the scenes where Jane is put to the test even stronger.
The intensity that is brought to the screen throughout The Assistant is nothing short of phenomenal. Such are the skills of Green as a storyteller and filmmaker she can make a scene where a character is choosing the right words to write in an email seem like they are about to make a choice that will see them live or die. As a filmmaker Green also lives but the classic screenwriter’s golden rule of show don’t tell. Given that the film is set in a film production office you know which former Hollywood executive the movie is based on but the fact that Green never names him shows some real class that I found actually made me think about the events depicted in the film even more.
Aside from the skill of the filmmaker it is also the performance of Julia Garner that makes The Assistant one of the films of 2020. There is no way to sugar-coat it Garner deserves to be Oscar contention for her performance here. She carries the entire film, is in almost every scene, and is given the difficult task of having to for a majority of the film tell her character’s story without using dialogue. Many young actresses would have failed under those circumstances, but Garner seems to relish it in. Of course saying that Julia Garner is one of the best actresses currently working is something that most fans of the gritty television series Ozark have known for awhile now.
The Assistant is one of the most powerful films that you will watch in 2020. It makes its point about Hollywood’s archaic power-trips in an artistic yet accessible way and shines a light on the amazing filmmaking skills of Kitty Green. Oscar night get ready… The Assistant is coming.