Warning: Spoilers for The Assistant are ahead.
Predatory and misogynistic practices abound in the Sundance premiered film, The Assistant. The film’s protagonist Jane (Julia Garner) suffers a justiceless existence soaked in a sense of inescapable doom in line with protagonists of classic Russian novels by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In The Assistant, Jane’s boss has no name, but when you watch it, it's hard to avoid the specter of another famous figure: Harvey Weinstein. While the comparisons seem somewhat obvious, The Assistant is about much more than the insidious effect of one man.
The Assistant puts gender dynamics and sexual misconduct under a microscope; it's not just one person’s story. The film represents countless women who have felt taken advantage of, abused, and disregarded. Director Kitty Green describes the film as “a composite of the thousands of stories I’d heard, seen through the eyes of one woman.”
Still, audiences will certainly find relevance in the story, especially as Weinstein's trial rages on in the background, in real life. The Assistant chronicles one day in the life of Jane, a recent college graduate paying her dues as the junior assistant to a powerful entertainment mogul. Like many people hoping to break into the often exclusive entertainment industry, her aspirations to become a film producer drive her to work the grueling long hours making coffee, arranging travel, taking messages, and changing the paper in the copy machine. There is nothing glamorous or fulfilling about her job, but, as one HR manager reminds her, thousands would line up to take her place.
What becomes glaringly obvious against the backdrop of these menial tasks is the rampant sexual misconduct being held as an open secret in the office. It's one of the behaviors Weinstein has been accused of, allegations he continues to deny. In the film, Jane not only becomes aware of what is going on behind closed doors, but she also discovers that many of her coworkers have been living with this knowledge for years and have done nothing, much like those who came forward in the New York Times bombshell exposé on Weinstein have alleged about his film company.
As the ominous tone of the film quickly conveys, her daily, dull tasks make Jane privy to a much more sinister side of the industry in which she hopes to build a career. She becomes increasingly aware of the surreptitious, systematic abuse taking place at her office and decides it cannot go on any longer and the only way to do that is to report it.
In the tone of a silent continuous scream, the plot clearly mimics the ousting of many powerful men in the entertainment industry, but its most obvious source material is Weinstein. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Green confirms that she began her research for The Assistant heavily focused on Weinstein. She spoke with people who had worked at Weinstein Company and Miramax; however, her research quickly expanded outside her initial focus.
She began looking into other Hollywood production companies, agencies, and studios, but her search didn’t stop there either. Before she knew it, Green was interviewing women in other industries such as architecture and engineering. After six months of near-daily interviews, she came to the unsettling conclusion: across industries, experience levels, and ages, women had eerily similar stories.
Still, this film does take place at a prestigious film company operating out of lower Manhattan's TriBeca neighborhood, which is where Weinstein's film company's East Coast office was located. The other giveaways that the boss in The Assistant is heavily based Weinstein are the small details. References to industry hangouts and hotels Weinstein was known to frequent are sprinkled into background conversation among Jane’s co-workers, all of whom seem to know the score.
“When we’re looking at interrogating this system that’s allowed women to be sidelined for so long, it’s not just men that are accountable,” Green told Rolling Stone. “We all have to examine our role, women included. So much of the MeToo coverage was like, ‘Oh, these few bad apples – we get rid of Harvey Weinstein and everything will be fixed.’ But the problem is bigger than that. It’s systematic, it’s cultural, and we need to all ask how we can make it better, how we can improve on it, how we can see change – not just a few bad men.”
Through the eyes of one woman witnessing the pervasive misconduct of one man, The Assistant sheds light on a truth experienced by far too many.