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Review: ‘The Assistant’ bears everything that brought about the MeToo era (Includes first-hand account)

As various industries and organizations remove their blinders to acknowledge the systemic sexism, harassment and abuse that’s existed for decades without consequence, the types of narratives being told are also changing. Rather than movies that portray this as the norm, films in the MeToo era are now giving voice to the victims and demonstrating such behaviour elicits harm in ways beyond the obvious. These accounts also illustrate the many obstacles to filing a complaint, pressing charges and/or getting people to even believe the accusations. In The Assistant, a young woman is burdened with being a bystander to her boss’ many transgressions.

Jane (Julia Garner) is the assistant to a studio executive of a major company. There are also two male assistants who appear to handle all the “non-secretarial” work, such as liaising with clients and gathering data. Getting to the office before dawn, she performs the duties of a housekeeper and administrative assistant interchangeably. After tackling a large portion of a seemingly endless to-do list, she timidly sneaks a bowl of cereal over the kitchen sink. As the day goes on, she’s thrown under the bus by her colleagues, belittled by her boss, and witness to abuses of power directed towards other female employees and aspiring young women. Overwhelmed by all of it, she tries to unburden herself, but has difficulty finding a sympathetic ear.

It’s been widely publicized the character of Jane’s boss is based on Harvey Weinstein, who is now facing criminal charges for rape and sexual assault. However, the fact that he’s never seen gives the role a sense of universality as “the casting couch” is not limited to any one executive. Rather than focus on the offences of a single abuser, the film is really about the environment that allowed such men to go unchecked for so long. His behaviour is more than just tolerated or ignored — it’s enabled by a culture of power and fear. The other employees joke about his predatory actions, while someone who’s meant to protect staff comforts Jane by informing her she’s “not his type” before dismissing her claim since it could stunt her own career. All of these incidents are depicted so matter-of-factly and with such authenticity, it’s impossible to escape the horrendous truth of the narrative — but more importantly, it’s all so sadly familiar.

Garner’s performance is subtle but powerful. Jane feels powerless, a sentiment that is repeatedly confirmed and reinforced by her colleagues. And although she’s supposedly safe from sexual advances, she’s still mistreated and disrespected in other ways by everyone in the company. Although the film only depicts a single workday, it’s clear these issues are not one-off occurrences. Audiences, particularly women, will empathize with her as she quickly conceals her tears or apologizes for so-called errors. Pushed to the brink, it’s also obvious she’ll do it all again the next day.

There’s no melodrama or exaggeration required — this movie’s raw depiction of reality speaks for itself.

Director: Kitty Green
Starring: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen and Makenzie Leigh

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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