“The Assistant” (movie review)

“THE ASSISTANT” (85 minutes; Rated R; available on Prime Video) — Somewhere in the middle of “The Assistant,” the downbeat but engaging first fiction feature from documentarian Kitty Green (“Casting JonBenet”; “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel”), the overworked Jane (Julia Garner) ventures a meeting with her firm’s human resources director. Jane doesn’t come right out and say it, exactly, but she relates that she’s disturbed by the liberties that the head of the company appears to be taking with young female employees. And she wants to do something — she’s not sure what, yet — to help, in solidarity with women like the pretty, fresh-scrubbed girl, just arrived from Idaho, that Jane escorts to the boss at an uptown hotel.

Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), the HR exec, rather than treating Jane’s concerns seriously, undercuts her at every turn, turning her words around, suggesting that perhaps the recently hired administrative assistant has misinterpreted the boss’s actions, and instead could simply be overreacting due to feelings of jealousy. Maybe she’s a bit hysterical, he suggests. “You’re not his type,” Wilcock tells her, in a clumsy but cutting bit of faux reassurance. It’s an emotionally excruciating scene, expertly carried out by Garner (television’s “Ozark,” “The Americans” and “Waco”), whose face conveys an impressive range of emotions, and Macfadyen (“Pride & Prejudice,” “Death at a Funeral,” HBO’s “Succession”) as the accomplished gaslighter. He’s the rock against which she could be crushed after landing in a hard place.

There are almost no bright colors in “The Assistant,” which takes place over the course of a single day, beginning when Jane leaves her home in Queens before sunrise to be among the first at her Manhattan workplace. It’s dark outside when she arrives, and dark when she leaves. And the firm, a film-production company meant to resemble the type of organization once helmed by notorious sexual predator Harvey Weinstein, is housed in a group of rather dingy interconnected offices — there’s nothing sleek or modern or movie-business glamorous about the place. It’s all muted browns, blacks, and greens.

Not a lot happens in “The Assistant.” Aside from Jane’s meeting with the HR guy, there are no big moments. It feels like an extended character study, with Garner, in one of the year’s best, most committed performances, grinding her way through the day, mostly stuck in the claustrophobic confines of the office. She tidies up, takes and makes calls, copies documents, communicates with the heard but never seen pompous boss, intercepts calls with his wife, and has some nominally lighthearted back-and-forth with associates (Noah Robbins, Joe Orsini) who help her construct two apology emails to the ogre.

Jane wants to be a producer someday, and, in this world, there’s no room for paying attention to her true emotions or acting on the calling of her conscience. It’s a power-struggle where alliances are everything but the winners are largely predetermined, a universe in which, sadly, too many women are forced to live.

Grade: A-

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