How quickly we went from “All workplaces are toxic” to “Man, I miss my workplace.”
Watching Kitty Green’s _The Assistant reminded me that we were in the middle of a significant push towards gender equity in the workplace before the pandemic. The future actually looked brighter. Now, I’m not so sure. How much, if any, of that momentum will remain when we eventually return to our fishbowls and cubicles? I ask because it’s basically your job to find the rainbow in the clouds. But Green’s obsession over grey days is actually what resonated most with me in this film. The pacing and tone of day-in-the-life films such as this one are usually slow and low-key, but in this case, Jane’s bad day at work reveals much higher stakes.
The key to making this story resonate with audiences is relatability. The performances are largely restrained and muted, much like your color palette, with no overt expressions of trauma or calling out of its perpetrators. Green instead makes us empathize with Jane by making her day and environment relatable. Julia Garner gives very little away through her dialogue or expressions, but watching her observe and react in and around her office is what ultimately made me identify with her. The look you created for her office also had an impact on me, which I think is the idea – for (hopefully) everyone to mentally place themselves at a current or past workplace where similar situations were experienced or observed.
Jane’s boss casts a long shadow over the film, but we never actually see him. Frankly, we don’t need to. We all know who he is because every working person has, at some point, worked for or with someone like him. The Assistant is a film about workplace harassment and abuse, but it isn’t an obvious, spelled out #MeToo story. There is no Mad Men-esque behavior here, no groping or calling the receptionist “sweetheart.” Instead, it deals with a form of gendered workplace abuse that is less overtly sexual, more subtle, insidious, and banal, but no less psychologically damaging.
The choice of making Jane an entry-level employee is also important, and hits differently than if she were older or more established in her field. As we learn more about her situation, it might be easy for some to see Jane as a petulant young woman sulking through her day because her boss isn’t showering her with praise after only a few weeks on the job. Green and Garner prevent such a perception through small, subtle moments that strike a chord – or a nerve – not just with women, but with anyone who is or has ever been stuck in a similar job or office. This way, the film’s context becomes broader than the issue of gendered workplace harassment, while maintaining a feminist take on an issue that affects women in particular, in a very specific way.
Full disclosure: I am also an Assistant. While my current workplace is a pleasant and respectful environment, previous ones have been… significantly less so. I’ve seen some seriously Mad Men-esque shit in my time, Sofie, but Jane’s bad day and its hundred-and-one small indignities are what took me right back to my very first job out of school.
Jane’s expression throughout the film is one I am innately familiar with. I call it Resting Assistant Face: unflappably blank with a tinge of “Are you fucking kidding me?” around the eyes. I’d wager any Assistant out there would agree it is essential to master this face. Granted, Jane’s job is a more extreme example with regards to inappropriate things going on in an office. While I have never had to scrub mystery stains off a boss’ couch or spirit his side piece away to a hotel, Jane’s day was chock-full of moments that hit home big time. I’ve been “Um… you” to people who have seen and worked with me every day for over a year, the designated target of unwarranted tantrums and reprimands, and the invisible elf who makes crumbs and garbage magically disappear. Oh, and that moment when Jane’s colleagues casually dump their dirty dishes before her without so much as a glance or a word of acknowledgement? I’ve been there more times than I can count, struggling to maintain Resting Assistant Face while fighting a strong urge to hurl that china at the wall.
The aesthetic and colour palette you deploy for Jane’s office is probably the thing that best reflects Jane’s mental state - a sort of ‘fog’ that is half exhaustion, half coping mechanism. You make the place look flat, grey, drained, dingy, and cold, emphasizing the darkness and claustrophobia of the setting so well it felt like all light or colour was being actively sucked right out of the room. Take it from me, even the brightest, most well-decorated offices can feel like that when toxicity is so pervasive in the environment.
The drabness of the office works so well because it also pairs with the wintery gloom outside, as Jane begins and ends her work day long before the sun comes up and long after it sets. I’ll bet anyone who has ever worked a day like that, completely shit from start to finish with barely a glimpse of daylight, will feel that overwhelming sense of ‘grey’ deep down to their toes.
Although The Assistant is mostly talked about in the context of the #MeToo movement, I admire the way it broadens its scope to make itself more widely relatable. The narrative is easily mined for other conversations about office culture, burnout, and the distinct millennial/Gen Z experience in the workplace. The film is contained to one bad day at the office, but hints at the mental and emotional toll when the bad days add up. The ending doesn’t leave us with any indication that the next day will be better for Jane. You have no idea whether her experiences will lead her to toughen up or burn out – it could go either way. My hope is that she goes home to some cheap wine and a cathartic viewing of 9 to 5, the ultimate Assistant movie, and the perfect remedy for days when Resting Assistant Face is just too hard to keep up.