The Assistant (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Her toxic work environment

It may take some time for you to discern the insidiously virulent work environment surrounding the helpless heroine of “The Assistant”, a small but biting independent film which is inarguably one of the most notable movies of the ongoing #MeToo era. At first, nothing seems to be particularly wrong as she begins another busy day of hers, but what she has suffered everyday becomes clearer to us step by step, and you may find yourself wince a lot as observing her increasingly exasperating situation.

During the opening part, the movie introduces us to a young woman named Jane (Julia Garner), who has worked as a junior assistant at some prominent film production company located in the downtown area of New York City. When she leaves her current residence early in the morning, a car is already ready to take her to her workplace, and we soon see her doing a number of things in advance before other employees come.

Once other employees arrive, the mood becomes quite busier than before. Jane and two male assistants working right next to her have to check and modify their boss’ schedule before their boss comes, and she also has to handle many other things ranging from making the copies of a movie screenplay to taking care of the credit card problem of the boss’ wife. Unfortunately, she fails to make a right response to the boss’ wife, and she consequently gets a wrathful call from the boss, who not only harshly insults her but also expects to receive a written apology from her right now.

As time goes by, we come to sense more of how lonely and isolated Jane has been in her workplace. There is not anyone in the company she can lean on, and, as reflected by a brief personal moment of hers, she has been quite distant to her parents as having focused a lot on proving herself to others in the company during last several months. Those two male assistants may understand her continuing struggle to some degree, but they usually look down on her with their condescending attitude, and she also has to endure their mean taunts from time to time.

Constantly emphasizing the drab and moody ambiance of her work environment, the cinematography by Michael Latham effectively conveys to us the growing sense of isolation and suffocation around Jane. Although many different people come and go around her (You may be amused a bit by the unexpected cameo appearance of a certain famous movie actor, by the way), she is usually alone by herself, and she keeps being burdened with more things to be handled immediately for her boss, who is seldom shown on the screen even when he is in his office.

And then something new happens in Jane’s workplace. A young woman from Idaho suddenly comes to the company as a new junior assistant to be hired, and it becomes quite apparent to Jane that the young woman is not that qualified for the job. When her boss instructs her to send the young woman to a spot where he will soon be, Jane follows the instruction without question, and then, as an employee who knows a lot about her boss, she comes to have a pretty good idea on what may happen next to the young woman.

Although the name of the company in the film is never mentioned at all, it is very clear that the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Kitty Green, who also edited the film along with Blair McClendon, is loosely inspired by the sexual abuse/harassment scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and his disgraced film production company, and Green’s screenplay often chills us as showing how much the other employees around Jane are willing to look away from their boss’ evil deeds behind his back. Like Jane, they all want more career advancement and success, so they cannot possibly say no to their rich and powerful boss, and they simply go along with the toxic workplace environment generated by him while expecting to be rewarded for that someday.

Eventually, Jane decides to do something later in the story, but, not so surprisingly, her attempt is promptly thwarted by a high-ranking employee in the human resource department of the company, who turns out to be far less helpful than he seems on the surface. As a matter of fact, she is even cruelly chided for making an unnecessary fuss in the company, and then she also has to endure another moment of bullying from her boss, who surely knows how to handle his meek junior assistant via stick and carrot.

These and many other dark moments in the film are certainly not very pleasant to watch to say the least, but the movie continues to hold our attention thanks to Green’s skillful direction, and Julia Garner, a young talented actress who drew my attention for the first time for holding her own place well beside Lily Tomlin in “Grandma” (2015) and then became more prominent thanks to her Emmy-winning supporting turn in Netflix drama series “The Ozarks”, gives a quiet but strong performance as the weary heart and soul of the story. Even when her character does not signify anything at all to us, Garner lets us sense her character’s growing inner conflict via subtle acting touches, and we are relieved when her character comes to have some relief around the end of the movie, though that does not last very long.

In conclusion, “The Assistant” is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is one of the more impressive films I watched during this year, and Green, who has been mainly known for directing several documentary films including “Casting JonBenet” (2017), makes a successful feature film debut here. To be frank with you, the movie makes “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) look like a mild fairy tale, and I assure you that Miranda Priestly will look far better than before once you watch it.

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