'The Assistant' aims to go behind the headlines of #MeToo

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2020 Invision

Writer/director Kitty Green, left, and Julia Garner pose for a portrait to promote the film "The Assistant" at the Music Lodge during the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

PARK CITY, Utah – “The Assistant” is one of the first narrative films to come out of the #MeToo movement and the Harvey Weinstein scandal. The film, written and directed by Kitty Green, features a predatory studio executive modeled after Weinstein, but he is unseen throughout the movie. “The Assistant” focuses instead on the toxic work environment around him, detailing a day in the life of a low-level assistant.

Green, an Australian filmmaker, has previously made documentaries that attempt to peel away the superficial sheen of media sensationalism. Her debut, “Ukraine Is Not a Brothel,” profiled a Ukrainian feminist group famous for its topless protests. Her 2017 documentary, “Casting JonBenet,” used local Colorado actors to get beyond the rumors and tabloid headlines of the child pageant queen’s unsolved murder.

In 2017, Green was working on a film about sexual abuse on college campuses when the Weinstein case broke. She quickly pivoted.

“I’ve always been interested in the way these events, especially involving women, are covered in the press,” Green said in an interview. “I was a little concerned that the media seemed to be focusing on these evil men and not on the system that surrounds them and the structures that keeps them in power. I wanted to look at it from a different angle rather than looking at it from the top down. I wanted to look at it from the bottom up.”

“The Assistant,” which recently screened at the Sundance Film Festival, arrives in limited theaters Friday just as the Weinstein trial is raging. (Weinstein has pleaded not guilty to two counts of rape, one count of criminal sexual act and two counts of predatory sexual assault.) Hollywood assistants, like the one named Jane and played by Julia Garner in the film, are also rebelling. Since last October, #PayUpHollywood has sought to pressure the industry to give its assistants fairer treatment and better pay.

But while “The Assistant” may be reminiscent of current headlines, it takes a deliberately restrained approach to portraying gender dynamics in the workplace. Where “Bombshell,” the Fox News drama, is starry and showy in its depiction of sexual harassment at a media company, “The Assistant” is muted and sober.

“One of the things she mentioned when we first met up was she wanted the film to be very quiet. And I think that was important because the subject is so loud,” says Garner, the 25-year-old “Ozark” actress. “It’s actually more powerful when you have a really quiet film, almost silent the whole time because the subject is silence.”

In the film, Jane attends methodically to the rigors of her job: answering phone calls; printing out headshots of actresses; lying about her boss’s whereabouts to his wife; unpacking a shipment of erectile dysfunction drugs; cleaning stains off her boss’s couch.