In The Assistant (2019) Jane gets her dream job in the film industry. She rapidly discovers the realities of working as a lowly assistant in an environment where the staff experience verbal abuse, and the boss uses his power to systematically sexually harass young women.
What should Jane do? Should she pretend that everything is fine and that nothing bad is happening — or should she speak up?
The film explores the network of enablers who support abusive people in positions of power: by turning a blind eye to their behaviour, or by actively enforcing an environment that tolerates and normalises abuse.
I found The Assistant an uncomfortable watch. This isn’t a story with heroes or easy solutions. There’s no quick fix here, or characters with superpowers to put the world’s wrongs to right. In some ways the story is too realistic, so completely believable that it’s depressing.
The perpetrators of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace usually command positions of power, or are able to call on the support of powerful people higher up the organisation. This is why bullying in the workplace occurs in the first place — because the perpetrators feel empowered to bully and sexually harass people, because they know that they can get away with it without recrimination. And why their sense of entitlement precludes them from expressing any shame or guilt.
The Assistant chronicles these realities, portraying a selfish and egotistical boss, a person who can turn on the charm and instantly switch to threatening behaviour, making everyone afraid of him.
The problem with this story is that it doesn’t tell the viewer anything which we didn’t already know. And it’s nothing new to the audience that organisations defend the powerful and influential perpetrators of such abusive behaviours (because of the widespread system of enablers).
Clearly this is a story coming in the wake of ‘me too’ awareness. It’s definitely a worthy story that tackles the subject with intelligence and sensitivity. But it presents a grim reality that has little in the way of positives to counteract the darkness of the subject matter. But, by sticking to a realistic narrative, and eschewing Hollywood cliché, the film retains its artistic integrity.