This year’s Best Actress race are filled with powerful women doing or going through big things. Viola Davis and Andra Day portray groundbreaking artists who are trying to elevate above prejudice. Frances McDormand and Vanessa Kirby are women who have to deal with moving on after a loss. Carey Mulligan is exacting revenge for monumental wrongs.
In The Assistant, Julia Garner portrays Jane, an assistant to a Hollywood big wig. Jane is not going through something big. She is just doing her job. Something big is happening, she recognizes it, but she can’t do anything about it. She has goals. She wants to be a producer and this is the route to make that happen. If she pushes too hard, it ruins her career.
Garner is in every scene of the film and commands your attention. The prime example of an actress having her face do the talking over the dialogue. Garner internalizes not only her reluctance to continue down her road, but her inner turmoil as well as a hefty amount of stress. It’s not only that Jane has to deal with the things she sees, she also works 15 hours a day and it takes a mental toll that Garner imbues without beating you over the head with it. What would your life look like if you had no joy in your day, your meals were hastily prepared and unhealthy and any slight slip ups could mean the end of your career? Garner puts on a true masterclass of show-don’t-tell.
Jane is berated (more than once) by her boss over the phone. Each time, she ducks her head and takes the punches. No pantomiming, no dramatics – just body blow after body blow being absorbed. Garner wears the pain and moves it aside so she can do her job.
The pinnacle of the film comes when Jane decides to go to HR and put her foot down. She doesn’t have a grand speech and then stomp away with righteousness. She quietly puts her coat on and heads over to the building. When she talks to the HR rep Wilcock (a corporately slimy Matthew MacFayden), the audience is finally given some relief that she is being heard for the first time. Jane begins to tear up until the other shoe drops.
Wilcock is not on her side and begins to belittle her and her complaint. Garner never expels with grandiosity, but stammers and represses. As Wilcock explains, her career could end with the right phone call. Or, she could forget this ever happened. The disaster is over and she begins to leave, just as Wilcock ends the meeting with the coup de grace: “Don’t worry, you’re not his type.”
The tone of the film changes following the meeting. Everyone knows what Jane did and she immediately has to know the repercussions. She doesn’t quit in a rage and she doesn’t shy away from the inevitable next steps. Jane’s resolve is to wipe her face and get back in there, despite the toll it takes on her soul. Garner face ages 20 years over the course of the film without losing any bit of her porcelain veneer.
The Assistant is too slight and underseen for real awards consideration and Garner won’t sniff the Best Actress competition this year. It’s a real shame since she delivers what I feel is the performance of the year.