Sexual assault is a touchy subject to approach, and the film industry is no exception. It would be easy for powerful film executives to sweep the #MeToo movement under the rug and pretend it never happened, but director Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet,” “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel”) refuses to let that happen. Her new film, “The Assistant,” offers a scathing, mature look into the reality of women in the film industry.
The film is inspired by sexual assault scandals such as the Harvey Weinstein case, where the aforementioned film executive has been accused of forcing multiple women to have sex with him in order to work in the entertainment industry. “The Assistant,” released Jan. 31, follows Jane (Julie Garner), a new assistant to a Weinstein-esque film executive. Over the course of the film, she discovers he’s abusing his power by sleeping with multiple women in the company. The simple plot mostly consists of Jane struggling both with herself and with the institution she’s trapped in.
Influenced by multiple feminist films, “The Assistant” wears its inspirations like a badge of pride and uses them to adorn its simple narrative. Reminiscent of early feminist films such as Chantal Akerman’s 1975 drama “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Comerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “The Assistant” has a stripped-down narrative, allowing the audience to get into the head of the lead.
The main strength of the film lies in the lead performance by Garner, who delivers a passive and restrained performance that sells the character’s sense of helplessness. While her character development leaves something to be desired — as she lacks any real character traits besides some generic desire to stop the assault issues — Garner elevates this character to an intimate level.
Just as many early feminist films, the plot serves as a simple framework to showcase the characters and the social commentary. “The Assistant” attempts to follow in the footsteps of these giants but doesn’t quite measure up when it comes to writing. The plots of these feminist films may have been minimalist but they curated every single word in the script to send a specific meaning. On the other hand, “The Assistant’’ has multiple scenes that add nothing to the film and only serve to pad it to feature length.
Green uses her documentary experience to give her film an eye-catching visual style. Many of the shots are flat, unmoving and hold uncomfortably long which causes a matter-of-fact style that forces the audience to accept the reality the film presents. In many ways, the film feels like a documentary, capturing mundane activities in a straightforward way in order to sell the subject matter.
The film constantly builds a simmering tension as the plot develops by making sure never to show the Weinstein equivalent. Through this technique, he then becomes a constant presence, lurking at all times, weighing down Jane and leaving her a timid mess throughout the film. Green hides the villain of the film, giving the implication that it isn’t just one man doing evil, but rather a problem with the whole industry. The subtlety of this decision is one of the major factors that elevates “The Assistant” from being a generic female empowerment flick.
“The Assistant,” rated R, is playing in theaters nationwide.