Sundance 2020: The Ignored Angst Of “The Assistant”

Julia Garner appears in “The Assistant” by Director Kitty Green, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” plays in the Spotlight category and presents us with the unenviable experience of working on the inside of a prestigious New York film office under the ownership of a famous, but abusive mega-producer.

The film begins at the break of dawn and follows Jane (played by actress Julia Garner), a relatively new assistant working relentlessly throughout a seemingly endless day. Jane arrives at work before everyone else, busy performing mundane tasks while simultaneously cleaning up after her movie-mogul boss—printing reports, making coffee and retrieving lost jewelry left behind…next to a “casting couch.”

Another still of Julia Garner, in “The Assistant.”

As the day stretches on, Jane is increasingly belittled by her cohorts, all taking glee in insulting her in subtle and sinister ways while simultaneously cowering under their tyrannical, world-class abuser of a boss. It’s a disturbing and unsettling experience, heightened by the fact that we never get to see who we can only assume is a Weinstein clone, constantly berating and abusing his staff in a peculiarly permissive culture.

“The Assistant” brings into focus how such a monster like Weinstein could exist, revealing a complicit culture that turns a blind eye. This is a place where everyone knows who they are working for, selfish enablers embracing an “open secret” while protecting themselves, workers with no room for empathy or concern.

One of the most disturbing scenes follows Jane as she tiptoes off to see the company’s HR officer, wonderfully played by actor Matthew Macfayden, after she is concerned for the well being of a young, innocent girl that her boss has lodged in a nearby hotel. Jane feels that she has to speak out, but the HR manager is perplexed. Why is she discussing this? What is her goal?

As he tells her, in no uncertain terms, there are over four hundred CVs vying for her position, all eager to take that entry-level job. And, to boot, her indirect evidence of abuse can never be proved. Perhaps she is jealous of this girl? When he asks her if he should file her complaint, Jane quietly withdraws and slips back to her desk, protecting her own position rather than speak out. As a result, Jane’s indifference echoes those of her fellow workers, all trapped inside a system protecting a predator.

All in all, “The Assistant” may not offer anything new to the #metoo conversation, but Garner’s understated but powerful performance highlights how talented she is, using mere glances and gestures to convey the growing angst within. The film offers an unsettling ride, but it’s one that’s worth viewing.

Director Kitty Green and Actor Julia Garner at the premiere of “The Assistant,” an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Lauren Wester.