The most talked about early acquisition at this year’s Sundance International Film Festival has been Netflix dropping $20 million for Chloe Domont’s semi-erotic workplace thriller “Fair Play”. It was quite a move for the streaming leader who gains the distribution rights for a film that has gotten a ton of buzz since premiering in Park City, Utah.
Written and directed by Domont, “Fair Play” is a gripping examination of gender dynamics, unbridled career ambition, male insecurity, and the pitfalls of intimate workplace romances. It explores them all through one increasingly toxic relationship. Domont’s shrewdly written script keeps us glued to the screen, and her keen direction shows an incredible ability to steadily ratchet up the tension. It’s only in the final act that the film stumbles and gets carried away in bringing everything to a close.
“Fair Play” is anchored by two captivating performances by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. They play Emily and Luke, a newly engaged couple who work as financial analysts for the same New York City hedge fund firm. It’s a competitive and cutthroat business; one that’s hardly conducive to romantic relationships. But Emily and Luke seem so in love when we first meet them. So much so that they’re willing to risk their jobs and break company policy that strictly prohibits workplace hanky-panky.
Domont does a great job immersing us into the financial realm without overwhelming us with office patter, investment gab, etc. She gives just enough for us to grasp its merciless high-stakes nature. She also emphasizes the bro-centric, male dominated office space culture which Emily comes up against. But this is no ordinary story of workplace misogyny, nor is Emily your run-of-the-mill movie victim. More on that later.
When Emily overhears whispers that the position of portfolio manager is opening up and Luke is in line for the promotion, she’s genuinely excited for him. But then Emily gets a late night call from their boss, Campbell (an outstanding Eddie Marsan) who informs her that she’s the one getting the “PM” promotion. Conflicted, she returns to their apartment to share the news with Luke. He takes the news well, mostly concealing his disappointment behind a shaky smile. In these moments there’s a subtlety to Ehrenreich’s performance that blew me away – an ability to convey everything we need to know through such well-measured touches.
But slowly over time their relationship begins to unravel as Luke struggles with his failures and Emily’s sudden success. Working directly under her offers its own set of challenges for their away-from-work relationship. But ultimately it’s Luke’s sense of entitlement and wobbly male ego that pushes him over the edge. But hats off to Domont for avoiding the trap of making this a predictable one-note treatise. While Luke’s fragile masculinity is the root of most of their problems, Emily is hardly exonerated from all wrongdoing. Some of her choices are more than suspect, as is her appetite for power within the ruthless and icky world of hedge-fund management.
Domont’s mix of riveting storytelling and smart direction ensures we’re always in her grip. She steers us through a crumbling relationship, ravaged by jealousy and ambition. And as the tension moves from a simmer to a boil, you can’t help but be absorbed in every self-serving choice and passive aggressive dig. But it does stumble in a final 15 minutes that’s a little too clever for its own good. Read one way, the ending is wickedly revealing. Read another way, it’s a somewhat over-the-top finish that leaves you with some rather obvious questions.
There are some things that feel tacked on and that needed more attention or to be cut altogether. Take Luke’s sudden preoccupation with some online self-help guru or Emily’s intrusive and overbearing mother. Yet Domont finds ways to make even filler interesting. It’s a testament to her instincts as a filmmaker and storyteller, even at such an early stage in her career. Chloe Domont proves to not only be an exciting new voice, but someone with a good grasp of her craft. I can’t wait to see what she does next.