‘The Assistant’ impressively displays acting, craft

Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

February traditionally provides few films of substance. Sandwiched between awards season and the spring’s offerings, the month typically sees some of the worst output in the movie calendar. “The Assistant” rebuts this pattern.

Written and directed by Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”), the new drama takes any of its expectations and wildly exceeds them. The film follows a young woman named Jane throughout her workday as an assistant under an abusive executive, who is meant to resemble a Harvey Weinstein type. Where the subject matter alone seems ripe for intrigue, the exceptional filmmaking and acting set “The Assistant” apart from other comparable social justice stories.

Julia Garner (“Ozark”) plays Jane — a recent graduate from Northwestern University who is trying to rise in a brutal entertainment industry. Despite her age, Garner’s filmography has already been populated by multiple great performances, such as in “The Americans.” Here, she gets a leading role, and the actor puts forward an Oscars-caliber work.

The minutiae of Jane’s daily grind is front and center. The young woman arrives at the office before anyone else, and she methodically prepares it for the day, turning on the lights and starting the coffee. As one of the few women at the workplace, she is even forced to clean up after her peers and bosses.

Inevitably, Jane finds herself caught in the middle of her abusive boss’s personal life. Her phone rings, and he aggressively
berates her.

All the while, Garner presents a steely-eyed gaze. She keeps her face composed but emotes remarkably with her eyes. To say that Garner’s performance is good would be a drastic understatement. She conveys so much without even a hint of showiness or flash.

Yet, “The Assistant” offers more than just one exceptional acting job. It also features terrific, restrained filmmaking in just about every regard. The production and set designs are perfect, the still cinematography portrays a fitting muted, grey color palette and the editing creates a smooth flow and pace. To make a movie that is so mundane look and feel so beautiful is nothing shy of impressive. Green is just in full control of every aspect of filmmaking.

A worry for a film like this might be that it could become boring. Fortunately, Green’s script holds up well by providing a few emotional plot points scattered throughout the film. At the beginning, Jane’s work proves compelling alone. Then, her coworkers prompt her to take a personal call about their boss, which causes blowback. Visibly upset, she uses a break to call her parents, learning that apparently she missed her father’s birthday amidst the stress.

Most notably, however, Jane becomes wrapped-up in her superordinate’s extramarital improprieties. Unsure of how to respond, she meets with a human resources representative in the film’s climax. Here, the writing genuinely shines as stellar staging and dialogue reveal how masculine workplaces enable such toxic behaviors.

Referring to “The Assistant” as a social justice movie just because of the timeliness of a #MeToo era story is a little unfair, though. Between all the components of the visual storytelling, the film creates a sense of realness to which all viewers can relate. It is easy to empathize with Jane’s struggles in a hostile work environment and feel for her.

Disappointingly, the drama does not seem to be garnering much public attention. However, “The Assistant” is fully deserving of praise and accolades. Garner shines with a restrained but empowering performance, and Green’s filmmaking fails in no regard. As such, “The Assistant” makes a claim for itself as the first truly great movie of 2020.