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Film / The Assistant

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The Assistant is a 2020 drama film written and directed by Kitty Green. The film stars Julia Garner as Jane, a young office assistant at a large film production studio who endures constant belittling treatment while observing a culture of complicity to sexual harassment.

Tropes

  • Adam Westing: A very minor example has Patrick Wilson appear as "Famous Actor," who is oblivious to Jane and takes it for granted that he gets to go ahead of her.
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  • Adult Fear: Jane and all of the other employees are subject to the whims of a petty tyrant who can destroy their careers for the smallest of infractions. They are forced to ignore or excuse his abuses out of necessity.
  • Affably Evil: Wilcock, the head of HR, acts polite and sympathetic to Jane's concerns, but it's clear that he's only concerned about protecting the company. He cross-examines Jane as she's making her complaint like a defense attorney and, in the end, politely browbeats her into withdrawing her complaint.
  • Ambiguous Situation: It's left deliberately ambiguous why Jane's boss compliments her. Does he genuinely think that she shows promise, or is he simply manipulating her to make sure she stays quiet?
  • Ambition Is Evil: Jane is moved to turn a blind eye toward her boss's behavior to facilitate her dream of becoming a film producer.
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  • Awful Wedded Life: The President is implied to be in a very unhappy marriage with his wife, whom he constantly cheats on. She is aware of this and often makes hysterical phone calls to his office.
  • Bad Boss: A big part of the point of the film is how bad Jane's unseen boss is. He's a serial philanderer, who uses the Casting Couch and maintains a culture of fear to get his jollies.
  • Beleaguered Assistant: Jane is the first in and last out each day working herself to the bone for a monster.
  • Beneath Notice: Jane is treated as beneath notice by many random office people. Whenever she arrives at the desk of one man, he ignores her for just long enough to become uncomfortable.
  • Big Applesauce: New York City is a corrupt, cruel city participating in sexual assault to uphold the film industry.
  • Country Mouse: Sienna, from Boise, is brought to New York to be the president's assistant/concubine.
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  • Day in the Life: The film follows one workday in Jane's life.
  • Extremely Short Time Span: The whole film takes place over about 16 hours, from before sunrise to around 10 p.m. the same day.
  • Forgotten Birthday: Jane forgets her father's birthday. When she calls him the day after, he tells her he's not upset because he knows how busy she is.
  • Functional Addict: Jane's boss is implied to be one due to the enormous amount of prescription medication she places in his office desk. Specifically, Alprostadil, a treatment for impotency.
  • Hired for Their Looks: Sienna is hired as an unneeded assistant purely so Jane's boss can keep her as a mistress.
  • Horrible Hollywood: While the film is set in the New York office of a Hollywood studio, it centers on an extremely unflattering look behind the scenes of the American film industry. Studio executives rule their companies like petty tyrants, and their minions are too beaten down or self-absorbed to fight back.
  • Industrialized Evil: A thoroughly realistic version as this is presented as the central part of Jane's job: she books the flights, packs the bags, and deals with the President's wife while he's raping women.
  • Jaded Professional: Many of the established workers in the office are obviously very jaded and dour.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Wilcock is clearly aware of and complicit in covering up the President's illicit activities, but he's not wrong when he points out that Jane has very circumstantial evidence that could easily be explained away. It underlines how difficult it is to challenge the President's position, even when you are working as his personal assistant because even then, getting solid proof of misdeeds is not easy.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The first thing we hear from Jane's boss is him unfairly castigating her over the phone and demanding that she write him an apology.
    • The younger male assistant throws paper at Jane and asks her to take a call from the president's wife, which gets her in trouble. He doesn't even acknowledge that he screwed Jane over. When Jane delivers a sandwich to him, he complains that she didn't get his order right and discards it. Later, he and the other assistant listen in on a call and chuckle among themselves while Jane tries to do her work. Ultimately, both prove to be part of the misogynist system when Jane returns from HR and they tell her to "come to them first" with her complaints before making anything official.
    • Wilcock reveals that he's already completely aware of the intimate details of Jane's boss's activities when he assures her that she has nothing to fear from her boss because she's "not his type."
  • Minimalism: The film mostly conveys the story through subtle cues, clues and innuendo. Otherwise it's just people at an office.
  • Morning Routine: The first 20 minutes or so of the film is Jane's morning routine in getting to work and starting the day.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The film's trailer makes it out to be a thriller, when it's actually a very minimalist drama. This certainly didn't help its reception by audiences.
  • No Name Given: Jane's boss is never named and only referred to as "the President." It's not clear what he's the president of.
  • Pet the Dog:
    • Subverted several times:
      • The male assistants help Jane craft her apology letters to their boss. They're helping her, but they're also reinforcing the office's poisonous culture. They also invite her to go out for drinks with them when they leave work, knowing that she still has to keep working for hours. She doesn't even respond to them.
      • Jane learns that her boss compliments her intelligence to his driver. He later sends a reconciliation letter to her after chewing her out, telling her that he sees great things in her future. He's really just playing on her pride and ambition to control her and keep her silent.
    • Played straight with Jane herself a couple of times, though. When she snaps at the President's driver due to stress, she immediately calls him back and apologizes sincerely.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The main thrust of the film is that virtually everyone in the office knows about the president's predatory behavior and is complicit to it through inaction.
  • Random Events Plot: The film follows little in the way of a conventional narrative. Jane just goes about her day and reacts to events as they come.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: When Jane escorts a group of Chinese investors, they speak among themselves without subtitles, as Jane can't understand a word of it and they have nothing to say to her. Interestingly, if you turn subtitles on for the whole film, their conversation is translated.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The film is obviously inspired by the then-recent Harvey Weinstein sex scandals.
  • Show, Don't Tell: The film delivers no exposition whatsoever. You have to watch closely and infer from various actions what's going on.
  • Slice of Life: The events in the film are deliberately unextraordinary.
  • Villain Has a Point: One of the most chilling things about Jane's scene where she attempts to report the President for HR is that Wilcock isn't just gaslighting Jane when he says this; he's also telling the truth about how Jane will be treated.
  • The Voice: We never see Jane's unnamed boss. He's usually not in his office, and when he is in, the door is closed or the camera is at an angle where he's not visible. We only hear his voice (performed by Jay O. Sanders), berating Jane a couple of times on the phone.
  • We Have Reserves: The HR man helpfully reminds Jane that there are four-hundred applicants ready and willing to take her position if she makes her accusations public.
  • White Collar Worker: Everyone is a white collar worker in an ugly office building.
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