Although it was released earlier this year, The Assistant feels like it’s from an entirely different cultural era. I missed its brief run in New Orleans theaters (despite being a big fan of Kitty Green’s previous film, Casting JonBenét) because it arrived during Mardi Gras season and looked like too much of a bummer to squeeze in between parties and parades. Looking back on that time now, the idea of attending parties and parades is an outlandish, alien concept, as I’ve spent the past eight months (almost immediately following Mardi Gras) avoiding crowds like the plague – literally. As a cultural moment, 2020 has defined almost entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from the presidential election to simple grocery store trips has been shaped by COVID in some way, to the point where I no longer recognize the cultural moment that birthed The Assistant. While we are currently living in the COVID era at the tail end of 2020, The Assistant is a film firmly rooted in the #MeToo era that was still very much at the forefront of public discourse at the start of this year. The entertainment industry and workplace culture at large have been violently disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks & safety protocols to the point where The Assistant feels like it’s a retro dispatch from a prehistoric world with its own distinct horrors & abuses. That world is not dead, though; it’s just quietly dormant, soon to return the minute we’re back to “Business As Usual.”
The Assistant is deliberately self-contextualized as a #MeToo era film. Julia Garner (who’s been due for a rise-to-fame breakout at least as far back as 2013’s Electrick Children) stars as a young, low-level assistant to A Harvey Weinstein Type. Her movie producer boss is a faceless, malevolent presence in the office, referenced only by “he/him” pronouns as if speaking his name would be blasphemous to his status as the office God. He is a well-known abuser of vulnerable young women looking to break into the movie industry, an “open secret” in the office that no one does anything about (beyond making jokes under their breath or strongly discouraging official HR complaints). New to the office, the extent to which her boss’s sexual abuses are known, tolerated, and enabled becomes starkly apparent to the disillusioned protagonist over the course of one spectacularly shitty workday. While the sexual abuse of these women is perpetrated by one clear villain at the top of the office hierarchy, he is largely absent from the screen; The Assistant is mostly concerned with the culture that fosters & enables the abuse rather than the physical act itself. It’s a cold, miserable examination of bystander complicity, implicating even its babyfaced protagonist for her own inaction in the face of a system designed to protect its own (as they exploit everyone else for sport).
While The Assistant is rooted specifically in #MeToo abuses within the entertainment industry, it also hits home as a generalized depiction of how demeaning & exploitative all office culture labor is even under the most mundane circumstances. Watching Garner clean up after her boss’s paper jams, children, half-eaten trash, and mysterious couch stains (*shudder*) is relatably grim to anyone who’s ever worked an 8-5 office job in any context. She’s a powerless twenty-something child who’s pressured from all sides to prop up an evil system with meaningless tasks that eat up her time & labor. It’s brutal to watch, even for just a quiet 78-minute stretch. It’s even relatable to the labor exploitations of the COVID era, which has dragged me back to performing mundane day-to-day work in an enclosed office environment despite an ongoing, worsening pandemic – just to maintain the pageantry of “Normalcy.” I don’t mean to imply that The Assistant is no longer relevant to the post-COVID world just because the #MeToo hashtag is no longer the #1 political issue currently at the top of our cultural priority list. It’s more that it now registers as a horrific reminder of what “Back to Normal” will look like once we get past this COVID lockdown disruption; it looks fucking grim.