Film review: The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green)
The Assistant is so clearly the work of a documentarian. It is clinical, analytical, and its camera always remains fixed on its subject. The story unravels its’ story in a way that belies the label ‘fiction’ just as much as its use of actors and a script suggests it is far from a work of ‘documentary’. It is an often uncomfortable watch, like being granted the opportunity to peer into a previously hidden world without the frou frou of a traditional dramatized narrative. That it hits unexpected beats and veers into uncertain directions only mimics the way a life unfolds unfiltered.
Kitty Green is one of the most exciting names in non-fiction, an Australian filmmaker who has directed her lens are international institutions (the Femen movement of Ukraine is Not a Brothel, and America’s true crime obsession in Casting JonBenet). I ranked both films among the best documentaries of the decade. But for her first… well, non-documentary (is that a term?), she has focused on an otherwise mundane show business office space that ruled by an unseen and very not-mundane Harvey Weinstein style sexual predator. Julia Garner stars as his assistant, tasked as first in and last out of the office and forced to endure menial labour for her boss like restocking his pharmaceuticals and arranging flights while also increasingly needing to cover for his executive philandering through vague ‘he’s not in’ phone calls with his wife to returning dropped earrings to female conquests and spray-deodorising his couch before the other staff arrive.
"But in her treatment of Garner’s Jane, a woman who is told to not worry about being sexually confronted by her boss because she’s “not his type”, she has clearly tapped into a well of stark reality that is rarely portrayed on screen."
Before Green even wades into the waters of sexual harassment (the boss is voiced by Tony Torn in irate phone calls, yet we never see his face), she is so completely spot in in the dynamics of an office. The ‘good guys’ who would probably be bad guys if they had the chance. The disdain for people making noise that is essential to their work. The coffee cups left on the kitchen sink for lower staff to clean. The walks from one end of the office to the other with little purpose beyond the need to move.
Just in the minutia of these parts, Green finds things to say about office class and gender. But in her treatment of Garner’s Jane, a woman who is told to not worry about being sexually confronted by her boss because she’s “not his type”, she has clearly tapped into a well of stark reality that is rarely portrayed on screen. The way her boss’s actions are so easily forgiven by those in power because of the benefits to found in working for him, the way she is… not gaslit exactly, but certainly coerced into not being so stuck up because it will help her career, told what she sees isn’t worth following up because—as any she said he said defence will tell you—there’s little proof of anything.
In here Green again finds nuance; the cheques without a name, the Human Resources who are more a resource for the boss as his eyes and ears to employee discontent, the excuses used to deflect attention. Obviously inspired by Weinstein and specific details found in it, Green has taken a sharp vision to it, reflecting how close to it all we truly are. If it can’t technically be called a documentary, The Assistant is certainly indebted to the form. It’s a remarkable work of cinema in any right. A film that, in its own perverse way, will probably get ignored by other filmmakers who really ought to know better.