You won’t be surprised to hear that Kitty Green’s The Assistant didn’t have an easy path to production. An exposing thriller rooted in accounts from over 100 women in the movie industry, Green’s film follows a day in the life of Jane (Emmy-winning Ozark star Julia Garner), a bottom-rung assistant whose job largely involves covering the tracks of a faceless Weinstein-type at a production company. Predictably, studios were unwilling to back the film, and The Assistant turned to independent funding sources to get made.
Its slow journey to release, however, means that the film arrives at a pivotal moment in #MeToo history, as the first to address the subject after Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year prison sentence was announced in March 2020. But rather than a message of hope, The Assistant serves as more of a rallying cry, an uncompromising, complicated study of institutionalised exploitation that reminds us of how much further there is to go.
In doing this, The Assistant sets the benchmark for what a film about sexual assault in the entertainment industry should aim for. The films that attempted to do this before didn’t even come close.
Early promo shots of Bombshell (released in January) held enormous promise. The image of three heavyweight Hollywood actresses stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a Fox News elevator almost screamed “Oscar!” – and Charlize Theron’s headline transformation into former anchor Megyn Kelly added to the awards buzz.
The film was directed by Jay Roach – a former comedy director who clearly fancies himself as the next Adam McKay (Anchorman, Vice) – and follows Kelly’s takedown of former Fox News CEO Rogers Ailes alongside Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Margot Robbie’s fictional character Kayla. Ailes resigned in July of 2016 after allegations of sexual assault were made by 23 women.
The performances from the central three are sensational – particularly Robbie, who has to endure a chilling, deeply invasive scene as an aspirational reporter – but the film fails when it glazes over any surrounding context of Fox News for fear of tarnishing the women’s credibility.
“Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick but interesting,” explains Kate McKinnon’s closeted journalist in a clumsily orchestrated attempt to hold the station to account. “Ask yourself, “What would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather?” And that’s a Fox story.”
In failing to colour in Carlson and Kelly as once prominent faces of a channel notorious for its bigotry, Bombshell seems to suggest that these women’s experiences only hold weight if they’re morally sound. If this is Hollywood’s attitude towards the victims of #MeToo, it needs to do better.
For crib notes, it can look to Apple TV+’s big money channel launcher The Morning Show. The rapid pace of TV production has meant that #MeToo has been handled much better on the small screen already, with long running series like GLOW and Bojack Horseman offering sensitively handled takes on the subject, while in comedy It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Curb Your Enthusiasm have relied on the gauche, often repulsive instincts of its central characters to add to the movement, even if there’s an argument as to whether those voices are needed.
The Morning Show treads the line between sophisticated storytelling and soap opera drama, that kicks off with the cancellation of Steve Carell’s beloved breakfast show host, and with a revelation from the show’s booker (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who deserves top billing alongside Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon) highlights the insidious manipulation of women by the companies that they work for.
No take on the #MeToo movement yet, however, has attempted a subtle approach, which is where The Assistant triumphs. The name of the Hollywood mogul that dominates Jane’s world is never spoken, but from the moment she plucks a jangling earring from the floor of his office in the film’s first act, a vision of him appears in your mind.
Green dives deep into the misogynistic fabric of Jane’s working environment over the film’s runtime – from blatantly condescending feedback offered by male co-workers to an excruciating conversation with Matthew Macfadyen’s slippery HR manager – and refuses to reward viewers with a neatly tied-up conclusion. “Don’t worry, she’ll get more out of it than he will,” says an older female colleague at the end of the film, an intended means of reassurance about the office sex happening upstairs that instead hints at what Jane could become if she stays at the company.
The Assistant probably won’t be the last #MeToo-orientated movie that we see this year; Emerald Fennell’s revenge flick Promising Young Woman also premiered at Sundance and is awaiting a new release date after COVID-19 scuppered its April launch, while multiple other projects are in various stages of development, The Morning Show season two amongst them.
It should, however, be remembered as a cultural milestone, proof that thorough research and skilled direction held the clearest mirror up to a historical moment in Hollywood history and implored the industry to keep fighting to solve a problem that still isn’t fixed.
‘The Assistant’ arrives on digital platforms on May 1