Writer-director Kitty Green fashions a cautionary tale — The Assistant — that dares to illustrate the threat one’s soul is under when seeking to break into Hollywood.
The old adage about baseball being a game for insiders is only half-right because once the idea of the statistics falls away, the sport itself (to a certain extent, like all sports) can invite in casual admirers. Hollywood, though, now that’s a segregated industry with a rigid code of secrecy separating those on the inside from the gawkers on the fringes. And heaven help anyone who seeks to break through.
Writer-director Kitty Green fashions a cautionary tale — The Assistant — that dares to illustrate the threat one’s soul is under when seeking to enter the industry. Her protagonist Jane (Julia Garner) is a recent college graduate who dreams of one day becoming a producer. Her youthful appearance, at the time we first catch a glimpse of her, is not exactly innocent. She already has a bit of resolve, a hint of hardness in her eyes. The chance to work for a powerful executive has unleashed a hunger.
We join her at the start of a typical day as she enters the office alone before sunrise and begins prepping. This isn’t merely about the early bird catching the worm. This bird is willing to create her own worms if she has to and that requires hard work, but she also realizes that she can’t let her effort show. Any hint of failure is verboten. A slip, no matter how minor, requires begging for forgiveness. Pride has been swallowed long ago.
Or has it?
These issues lie at the heart of The Assistant, though maybe it has nothing to do with the heart at all. The story is raw and as nakedly observed as the assistant herself, who is always watching and waiting, carefully calculating her actions and those of her co-workers, her superiors and anyone who wanders into the orbit of the universe she barely inhabits.
I mentioned co-workers. Jane has two male assistants (Jon Orsini and Noah Robbins) with whom she shares an office, and although neither of them is ever referenced by name, we understand that their journey has been different. Speaking of privilege is a tricky notion, but it applies here in all the ways it has become a social catchphrase. There are moments, when Jane makes mistakes based on judgment or circumstance, that one or both of them teasingly offer assistance to her, aid drawn from their bountiful pool of white male entitlement. Plainly, these two never had to fret, or arrive as early in the morning or stay as late into the night as Jane does. They never got hung up with the minor annoyances of dealing with the incessant calls from the wife of their boss. Such trials were fleeting and reserved for assistants like Jane.
But if such assignments were all that Jane had to overcome, she would end up like those two unnamed associates; on the fast track for a corner office, high profile clients, several homes on both coasts, and an anonymous (and faintly annoying) family in the wings.
Instead, Jane struggles with her conscience. As she cleans her boss’s office, she comes across an earring by the couch. She remembers the faces of each and every increasingly younger woman who enters that chamber, how eager they were going in and how changed they emerged. She feels for them. In some ways, she’s happy she’s not like them, but on some level, she wonders why she’s not.
When things come to a head during the course of this one particular day, Jane pulls on her coat and walks over to the building next door for a meeting with Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), a human resources manager. Jane knows that reporting what she believes to be improper behavior could dramatically impact her efforts to move toward her overall goal, and she wants to do the right thing.
Garner holds the screen and our sympathy throughout, despite the constant fraying of her psyche. It is heartbreaking because, when rendered on screen, her life is like watching a dream slowly morph into a waking limbo.
The film shows us what Jane ultimately decides, but far more instructively, it presents the two male assistants, even in quick strokes, as somehow more fully evolved people, who work in the same environment, each day, but arrive later, playfully interact with each other, and leave at a reasonable enough time to grab dinner or drink, unencumbered by the same burdens as Jane.
Which begs the questions, is The Assistant about an outsider who becomes an insider and at what cost? (Rated R) Grade: B