Treating an incendiary issue in an austere, minimalist manner has turned “The Assistant” into an arresting independent drama.
Few things are more difficult for narrative features than creating a compelling scenario out of current events, but writer-director Kitty Green, with a big assist from star Julia Garner, has made it happen. “The Assistant” is less bombastic than you might expect, and that is all to the good.
Green, an Australian documentary filmmaker who also produced and co-edited here, has said that she was interviewing for another film when the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal broke and pushed the earlier project out of her mind.
Though Weinstein may have provided the initial inspiration, the story here was constructed from what Green says are the thousands of stories she collected in numerous work environments that went beyond just the film business.
The structure, a bit daring for a feature-length film, is a single day in the life of Jane, the low assistant on the totem pole in the office of a New York mogul identified only as “the Chairman,” someone connected enough to get invitations to the White House.
We never actually see this eminence, but we do go through an entire Monday with Jane, starting with an early morning car ride in from Queens to physically open up the office.
If there is a mundane task to be done, Jane is tasked with doing it, and we see her taking on mind-numbing stuff like endless Xeroxing, opening boxes of bottled water and making last-minute travel arrangements (in L.A., the Chairman prefers the Peninsula).
There are also jobs that have something sketchy about them, like unpacking syringes and writing checks for large sums that have no recipients’ names on them.
Green’s documentary background stands the film in good stead here. Working with cinematographer Michael Latham, her lean, efficient, “just the facts, ma’am” style enhances the core of verisimilitude that is one of “The Assistant’s” strengths.
Because Jane’s role is so non-demonstrative, the gifts of star Garner, an Emmy winner for “Ozark,” are much needed.
Garner has the kind of presence that makes us want to watch no matter what is going on, and makes us receptive as we gradually find out some of Jane’s personal information, like her desire to eventually become a producer and her regret at being so overwhelmed that she forgot to call her father on his birthday.
One of the shrewd decisions “The Assistant” makes is one of omission, to avoid the obvious situation of Jane being a subject of sexual harassment herself. Instead, she is put upon in different ways.
Though still a relative newcomer after five weeks on the job, Jane feels the full brunt of the psychological abuse that seems to be the office’s modus operandi.
Not only does no other employee take any time to be so much as borderline pleasant, the two other male assistants in the chairman’s office mostly (but not entirely) give her a hard time every chance they get.
Worst of all is the chairman, a verbally abusive law unto himself, who metes out savage attacks should Jane happen to say the wrong thing as she negotiates the byzantine complications of the inevitably angry people who want to get her boss on the phone.
The turning point in Jane’s day comes when another young woman enters the office, an attractive blonde waitress (Kristine Froseth) the chairman met in Sun Valley who is inexplicably being put up in a luxury hotel while being trained as yet another assistant.
Fearful because of this and other signs that her boss is taking advantage of women, Jane decides to do something, taking a course of action that leads to an especially fraught situation.
Because what “The Assistant” is especially good at is depicting how a company-wide culture of psychological abuse and mind games perpetuates itself, how powerful people whipsaw the emotions of those below them. Its restrained, deliberate style is ideally suited to making the point that people without restraints are capable of anything.
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 31, Arclight Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles