Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on Fire!
I think almost everyone has had a job that has sucked to the point of feeling like life is no longer worth living. Most of us have cried over a job or stormed out, rage quit, or otherwise wondered what the hell we were doing with our lives. When the job in question is connected to what you want to do with your life, it’s a rude and terrible wake-up call. That’s what The Assistant is. A young woman working at a low-level job in the film industry gets a very hard lesson in exactly how terrible pursuing a dream can be.
Jane (Julia Garner) wants to produce, and pursuant to that goal has taken a job as a minor assistant of a New York film producer of some stature. While the initial thought is one of glamor and fame, Jane’s life is anything but. She shows up before dawn, handles countless menial tasks, and works well into the night. Her interaction with her boss (Tony Torn, who only appears as a voice on her phone) is generally abusive—she’s not noticed when things are perfect and is blamed for everything that might go wrong whether or not she was involved.
On the surface, this sounds like rom-com job stuff: a mean boss, a crazy schedule, etc. But it’s not. This is vicious and mean, and Jane looks constantly on the edge of tears or screaming. This is someone who enjoys nothing in her workday and, when she eventually gets to leave, spends all of her time away from work thinking about work. We find out early on that she has missed her father’s birthday and owes him a call. The other assistants who work with her are no help—they foist off the unpleasant calls on her, and when she is forced to do something like send a difficult email, they stand behind her and tell her how to write it.
Through the course of this one day, Jane finds out that her boss has hired another assistant. Sienna (Kristine Froseth) is someone he met in Idaho. She is young, pretty, and evidently got her job through sex. Unlike Jane, Sienna has temporarily been put up in a five-star hotel at the expense of the company, and once she has been ensconced there, the boss goes to meet with her. Jane, who has only been doing the job for a little more than a month, is unsure of how to handle what is happening, is worried about her future, and is sure that something is going on that isn’t right. She heads to HR to talk to someone about what she is sure is quid pro quo sexual harassment, but the HR head (Matthew Macfadyen), knowing that this story will destroy her career and his own career if he pursues it essentially browbeats Jane back into silence.
There’s more of course, but that’s more than enough for my purposes here. The Assistant is very much about this sort of grinding down of anyone not in power in the workplace. It’s interesting that this came out in 2019, because it seems to presage the sort or workers’ rebellion and revolution that we have been seeing over the last year. The “worker shortage” that is essentially a “we don’t want to pay above starvation wages” epidemic instead feels like the natural child of what is happening to Jane. She is at the mercy of her thankless job, feels like the job is killing her spiritually, but is so desperate to cling onto the dream that she has nowhere else to go. What’s happening—the daily abuse, the sexual harassment of others, the overwork—is killing her, but it’s also her way into the business she wants to be in. It’s her “dues,” and the price might be too high.
What’s really interesting here is that there is a sense that Jane knows what is going on with her boss—the evident sex-for-job arrangement he has with Sienna is not the first time Jane has seen this—and that she is torn on how to react. She’s appalled by it and offended by it, but there is a sense that she is offended that she is not her boss’s type and that while she is safe from this harassment, she is also prevented from a quick assent because of it. And there’s also a sense that she hates that she thinks that.
The Assistant is a soul-crushing movie. There’s nothing here that is happy, and there is very much the sense that we could have pulled a day of Jane’s life at random and seen essentially the same thing—the same hurried breakfast and lunch, the same abuse and belittling, the same unhelpful help from her colleagues—the same everything. Jane’s life is a desperate attempt to work in film as a producer, but she’s found herself more or less becoming Sisyphus. It’s heartbreaking and terrible.
Julia Garner is aces. This isn’t a movie that would get Academy attention since it doesn’t paint the industry in a positive light, but it’s a hell of a performance, and it’s relentless in its direction thanks to Kitty Green in her first non-documentary directorial role. It’s not one I’d like to watch again soon, but it leaves one hell of an impression.
Why to watch The Assistant: As much as it sucks, this is a story that continues to need to be told.
Why not to watch: Man, but the movie business is shitty sometimes.