#MeToo has been an unequivocal success in terms of calling out the rampant sexual abuse that exists in the veins of Hollywood, but has been less successful in allowing room for others on the so-called “fringes of society.” Women of color have not been especially listened to, nor has there been much attention to the massive amount of sexual abuse toward sex workers. In the cinema sphere, things have not been much better. Jay Roach’s Bombshell (2019) has been perhaps the most prominent Hollywood film to tackle the subject, but it was a misfire at best in examining the deleterious effects of workplace sexual assault. But recent films like The Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and On the Record have attempted to bridge some of those gaps in the movement by placing figures from within those communities at its center, and perhaps these films’ most remarkably consistent element was the choice to make the situations fairly quotidian.
* * *
It has been about two and half years since October 2017, when the #MeToo Movement started to gain significant traction on social media and beyond in the wake of the sexual-abuse allegations levied against Harvey Weinstein. The movement has largely gained the most attention in the endless feeds of Twitter users, and most of the more “successful” accusations – i.e., the ones that have resulted in lawful action or a removal of the accused from places of power – have been others like Weinstein: the rich and the White. #MeToo has been an unequivocal success in terms of calling out the rampant sexual abuse that exists in the veins of Hollywood, but has been less successful in allowing room for others on the so-called “fringes of society.” Women of color have not been especially listened to, as Anne Branigin recently wrote in The Root, nor has there been much attention to the massive amount of sexual abuse toward sex workers, as Melissa Farley has pointed out for Dignity. In the cinema sphere, things have not been much better. Jay Roach’s Bombshell (2019) has been perhaps the most prominent Hollywood film to tackle the subject, but it was a misfire at best in examining the deleterious effects of workplace sexual assault. But recent films have attempted to bridge some of those gaps in the movement by placing figures from within those communities at their center, and perhaps these films’ most remarkably consistent element was the choice to make the situations fairly quotidian. In Kitty Green’s astonishing fiction debut The Assistant, Julia Garner’s Jane is a freshman employee at a New York production office, and in Eliza Hittman’s harrowing Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020), Sidney Flanigan plays a young girl with nowhere to go to determine the fate of her unborn child. Then there’s Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s On The Record, a documentary about Drew Dixon, whose complaints against music mogul Russell Simmons fell short of sufficient media coverage largely because Dixon herself is a Black woman making allegations against a billionaire. All films are essential for the modern cinema and for the #MeToo movement at-large, which, despite its significant gains, still has far to go in incorporating the myriad of people that daily face assault, and who have less resources than celebrities in calling out their abusers.
Prior to Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, there was the 2007 Romanian masterpiece 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Director Cristian Mungu shows us a terrifying portrait of a woman seeking an abortion with the help of her schoolmate, and the two films share a certain political kinship. Romanian law still prohibits abortion care, and while it is technically legal in America, these rights are daily infringed upon. Hittman’s movie feels like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ American cousin, an unflinchingly raw look at an everyday story of an underage girl in rural Pennsylvania trying to navigate the treacherous waters of female health care. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, high school student Autumn (portrayed with effective simplicity by Sidney Flanigan) gets pregnant off-screen, in a scene that precedes the film. We never see the person that Autumn has gotten pregnant by, and this is partially the point: the film is not about a struggle of a young couple, but how the choices we put on young women are overwhelmingly a burden for them alone. After exhausting her options near home, Autumn decides to escape the confines of her neglectful home and go to New York City with her best friend Skylar (Talia Ryder) to seek out an abortion.
In a lot of ways the story here is unexceptional, which is, again, purposeful: abortion care is still wildly controversial in America and horribly underfunded, especially in more remote areas of the country. Hittman captures this in exceedingly simple and poetic ways. Sexual assault doesn’t just occur before the film starts at the hands of a careless partner, but also at the hands of a faceless grocery store manager who gropes and kisses his way down the line of female employees as a form of bribery. There is even the suggestion that her father has been abusive in this manner, too, and Hittman chooses not to solidify this fact; but precisely because we are inside of a quotidian world where powerless young women are easily passed around, our fears can easily be verified. Additionally, Autumn can only access health care through a Christian-minded clinic that deliberately lies to her. While there, she is encouraged to keep the baby regardless of the circumstances surrounding her pregnancy, circumstances the woman operating the clinic seems uninterested in knowing. Even later on in the film, when Autumn and Skylar make it to a New York Planned Parenthood, they still have to subject themselves to unwanted advances in order to pay for their whole journey. Hittman reminds us that the gaps in female health care are universal; it does not matter that she is in relatively safe hands inside a historically liberal city. She might as well be back home in Pennsylvania.
Who is the father? It could be her alcoholic dad, a heckler at a student talent show, a boy at a pizza restaurant making lewd gestures, or anyone else of whom we’ve only seen glances. This masking effect helps highlight the isolation of its main character but also the massive isolation of women in general who are frequently unable to speak about their experiences for fear of retribution or perhaps worse, the total lack of understanding by their own peers. Cinematographer Helene Louvart shoots the whole film in a grainy, underexposed palette; at times it feels as if it was shot on a phone, a cinematic choice that induces maximum anxiety possible because it makes the entire enterprise feel like a found-footage documentary.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always’s title is derived from the movie’s most exceptional scene, a one-take punch in which Autumn is gently questioned by the doctor at Planned Parenthood. Up till now Flanigan’s Autumn has been placid, with all the societal and political urgency of the moment fueling the subtext of every action and moment. But here, the weight of the past few days starts to gain its nefarious hold on Autumn, who must answer every question with “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes” or “always.” The somewhat clunky title of the film finds its foothold; and as Louvart’s camera slowly suffocates Autumn’s space, we can’t breathe either as we come to understand the brutal circumstances that surround every decision a woman is forced to make in matters of their own body.
For Kitty Green’s narrative debut, The Assistant, this moment comes right at the midpoint where Julia Garner’s Jane attempts to make a formal complaint against her sexually promiscuous boss to the head of Human Resources. The film shares some spiritual similarities with the aforementioned Never Rarely Sometimes Always in that Green and cinematographer Michael Latham frame the extended conversation in much the same way as Hittman and Louvart, creepily closing the frame around Jane until she has lost all ability to make the complaint she deserves to make.
The Assistant centrally concerns Jane (brought to life with exquisite detail by Garner), who, only six months into her journey as an employee in a high-powered production office in New York, must dodge repeated microaggressions from her office mates and her boss in what could be any day of the workweek. A new employee (Makenzie Leigh) is being asked to join the assistant pool; some travel plans must be made for her boss and some calls need to be completed. But along the way Jane comes to know that this new employee is just a sexual plaything for her boss, and as she grows more and more uncomfortable with the situation she has to also ward off the boss’s angry wife, who rightly suspects her husband of being unfaithful. That latter task is foisted on the young Jane simply because she is the newbie of the group, and though it is never said but only implied, because she is the only woman of the group.
In that scene in which Jane is attempting to make a formal complaint, her resolve in tow, she is clearly seeing things for what they are in her office. But as soon as the young recent college grad has to explain herself to yet another middle-aged white man, her vision crumbles. She can’t form sentences very clearly, the abuses she’s witnessed suddenly sound like no big thing. It’s the crucial central argument of the movie: Green forces us to see the way these mini institutions inside the larger structures women now find themselves in slowly eat away the very integrity of the people trying to operate therein. And we see how easily abuse can just be normalized.
The film lacks some forward momentum, but the everyday nature of its story is the reason why we’re watching at all; these interactions, small as they are, happen every day. This is the sexual assault that most women face. It’s not always the grand gestures; it’s the small finger wagging, the ordering around, and the way that Jane becomes part of the office furniture herself. Part of the way this is realized is through Leslie Shatz’s impeccable sound design. Green’s script is sparse with dialogue, so we instead get a layered, monotonous, STOMP-esque soundscape where the clicking and clacking away of keyboards and drawers and doors invade our ears like an arrhythmic heartbeat Jane can’t ignore. And Kitty Green doesn’t let us off the hook either; the respite of the late-night New York City air doesn’t do anything for Jane, who is even turned away from her own father over the phone who, while sympathetic, has to go. He tells her “all jobs are hard at first.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Assistant is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be as scandalous as possible to fit this current moment of #MeToo, but rather plods along methodically until Jane’s workday is mercifully over. Green’s script never tips into the maudlin. There is no scene in which Jane gets to tell off her abusive boss, nor a scene in which she finds him mid-coitus. There is no scene in which Jane herself is asked to undress, or to perform a sexual act that she does not want to participate in. Instead, Green gives us moment after moment of Jane being asked to cover up those abuses – to lie for her boss’s wife, or apologize for “overstepping” even when she has been nothing but pliant to the whims of her unrelenting office.
Kitty Green ends her film as cynically as possible, which is to say as devastatingly realistic as possible. After being gently hung up on by her father, Jane leaves a corner deli where she’s purchased a shrink-wrapped chocolate muffin, that uber-image of New York City. She’s only been able to pick at it, and the last image left to us is of Jane, walking solemnly down the street, to her apartment, barely satiated and broken down. The point is clear: Jane is in a time loop. This might as well be a dark version of Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day.
Two scenes, one outcome. While it is true that in Eliza Hittman’s scene that begins the final act of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, our heroine is being questioned by an obviously sympathetic listener, she is still being interrogated. It isn’t the doctor’s fault, but Hittman is clearly making a point about the inherent problems within a system that by its nature does not trust women. In Kitty Green’s anchoring scene of The Assistant where a Human Resources manager who only exists to protect the interests of his powerful boss is questioning Jane, the gaze is significantly different. But again the result is the same: for both these young women, their sexual experiences are being picked apart by a system designed to vilify the people they purport to protect. Never Rarely Sometimes Always isn’t explicitly about the #MeToo movement – its purpose is much more focused on the glaringly underfunded system of female health care – but the political moment of this time amplifies the film like a steady and treacherous bass drum. Both films focus their arguments on the sexist structures that pervade every facet of modern-day society.
These, of course, are works of fiction, but their plots are, sadly, mundane. That is to say, they are wholly unusual. On the Record, the recent documentary from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering about Drew Dixon’s journey to going public with her accusations against music mogul Russell Simmons, is much the same. This is a story about a group of women struggling to cope with the abuses they’ve faced when going up against a man of extraordinary wealth and power. What makes On The Record so unusual as an entry into the post-#MeToo movement is that its subjects are Black and other women of color. Just like the argument at its center, the content has been heretofore unheard of. One of the biggest gaps in the movement has been the lack of voices of color, and Dick and Ziering are careful not to diminish the gains of the movement while demonstrating that even in spheres of good-natured activism, white supremacy can be overwhelming. More often than not, these fights are about class and the wealth gap. Simmons, a billionaire, has only been able to keep the lid on the breadth of sexual assault allegations against him by flaunting his record of so-called activism. In other words, he has silenced women and dissenters by virtue of his wallet alone, and mainstream media has been comparatively quiet in favor of white women going through similar trials and tribulations.
All this makes it even more disappointing that Jay Roach’s Bombshell in 2019 so missed the mark in dissecting the pervading force of sexual harassment. Bombshell is easily the largest film of the crop in terms of outreach, but the movie lacks any meaningful perspective. In it, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman play the very real-life Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, respectively, and Margot Robbie (in a reliably heartbreaking performance) plays a woman meant to serve as an amalgamation of several people – all of whom had made allegations against the late Roger Ailes (played by John Lithgow). The film is glossy and effectively acted, but Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph miss every opportunity to dissect the hypocrisy of Fox News. The film clips by with almost no consequences for anyone; not for Lithgow’s Ailes, and not even for the women that have been subjected to his advances and bribes. It is worth noting that Bombshell has a male director and a male screenwriter, while The Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and On the Record are works by female filmmakers or a team of male and female.
Where else can the cinematic depiction of this movement go? Perhaps the next step is an honest look at rampant sexual abuse within the prison-industrial complex, particularly where police have abused their power. With the recent civic uprisings in support of Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, the public is more aware than ever of the systematic abuses of police departments everywhere. Another ripe opportunity is a sympathetic eye toward sex workers, who struggle for any kind of visibility as it is.
For now, these handful of films serve well to remind us, with extraordinary care and difficulty, that even people without a preexisting public profile are subject to abuses of power.
* * *
All images are screenshots from the films discussed.