Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other digital services, often films with modest budgets and limited fanfare. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.
The premise: A young woman working in a high-powered Hollywood mogul’s office slowly discovers, over the course of a day, that the cost of doing business in this world may be her silence.
What it’s about: It took two years for a truly great movie to come out about the Harvey Weinstein case, and The Assistant is it. (The lag time is no big surprise, since Weinstein’s close association with most of Hollywood left much of the movie industry reeling and uncertain about individual complicity in providing cover for the alleged predator for decades.)
Instead of addressing the sexual assault allegations head-on, director Kitty Green turned to fiction to explore what made Weinstein such a powerful, feared figure in Hollywood. Green is best known not for fiction features but for her documentaries, which explore the way that bigger systems impact the lives of ordinary people. In her most recent film, 2017’s Casting JonBenét, Green looked at how the media, and cycles of violence and abuse, affect the way people think about the notorious 1996 murder of 6-year-old JonBenét Ramsey.
The Assistant covers some similar ground, albeit in a very different way. Julia Garner (Ozark, The Americans) plays Jane, a new assistant in the Tribeca offices of a high-powered movie studio executive. The Assistant follows Jane through one long workday, which begins before dawn and ends late at night. Jane makes coffee and copies, takes calls and endures light ribbing from her colleagues. She also witnesses, to her slowly growing horror, what she thinks might be her powerful boss’s inappropriate behavior toward a young woman who shows up unexpectedly, saying she’s been promised a job in the office.
The genius of The Assistant (which is clearly modeled on Chantal Akerman’s 1975 feminist masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels) is that we don’t see the “Weinstein” character directly. Instead, we hear his voice and see his back from a distance; we also see the fear he provokes in his subordinates. He isn’t the point of the story, though. The point, as The Assistant makes blindingly clear, is that the movie executive gets away with his behavior because of the people around him. It’s one of the best, most gripping, and smartest films of 2020.
Critical reception: The Assistant premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival and then had a brief theatrical release in January 2020. It received praise from critics. At the AV Club, A.A. Dowd writes, “There’s no inspirational upshot to The Assistant. This is not a loosely fictionalized version of the story of how Weinstein was finally toppled, bolstering the #MeToo movement three years ago. It’s more like the story of why it took so long—how people averted their eyes because there was money to be made and too much risk in taking a stand. By the end, you begin to see a moral clarity, not timidity, in keeping the Harvey proxy completely off screen.”