Sundance 2023 Film Review: Fair Play

Fair Play, director Chloe Domont’s feature debut, has gotten a fair amount of talk at Sundance, recently picking up the first major distribution deal of the festival with Netflix. There’s good reason for the excitement, in part for the solid performances of its leads, Phoebe Dynevor (Emily) and Alden Ehrenreich (Luke), as well as for its timely depiction of gender politics in a high-pressure corporate environment, where dominating everyone, or trying to, acting as if you can—that is, being not just one of the boys, but the Man—is the only path to success. 

The film opens with a seemingly unexpected proposal, an offer of marriage, Luke to Emily, that plays out, strangely, like a negotiation, not for a mutually desired union, but for something more like a merger. It’s no spoiler to tell you that Emily says yes—though it does seem like there’s a chance she might not. Is it because she’s not sure about Luke? Maybe. Or rather it might be the fact that it’s a professional risk. They can’t tell anyone because revealing such an entanglement, socially sanctioned or not, would give an impression of bias, would introduce an imbalanced power dynamic, a hint of impropriety that might sink them both at the investment capital firm where they work, side by side, pretending they know nothing about each other’s personal lives. There’s a suggestion of ethics here, that the firm wants to provide a “clean floor”—in the words of its mob don-like leader, Campbell—for potential investors. But also we can read Luke and Emily’s caution as a desire to avoid revealing a potential weakness, something others might exploit. To announce their relationship (they already live together), even now, sealed by a ring, might make them prey, they worry, their jobs and their mutual future at risk should one half of the couple stumble into a costly mistake or some snare set by their conniving co-workers.

The computer-lined desks of the company will remind viewers of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Though the employees gazing into those monitors and gossiping crudely about each other are more diverse than in that 1987 classic, the nature of their dialogue and their jockeying for favor remain virtually the same. This and the fact that we still get mostly white men speaking reflects a telling lack of progress. As we learn, though, Emily has no trouble talking the talk as well as any of those men, and it’s notable that only when Campbell approaches her with his own professional proposal do we learn what a wunderkind she really is. To this point, Dynevor has performed humility as if her Emily has not yet done enough to earn notice, and so we understand her and Luke as relative equals—despite his inherent advantage as a man. But once Campbell recites Emily’s history to her, we understand the character’s modesty as her own performance, as intentional restraint, a strange move in a world that rewards loudly proclaimed, aggressive, masculine ambition. Is she trying to protect herself, Luke, both? Her late-night meeting with Campbell forces a decision that will require Emily to play her hand, in effect to become one of the boys if she wants to move forward.

In the aftermath, Emily and Luke’s relationship is strained to the point of breaking in scene after scene of more or less private shouting matches, full of wounding accusations and seeming truth telling. The emotional pitch hits its peak rather too early, so these confrontations feel almost repetitive well before we reach the last straw, in part because Ehrenreich’s Luke has made us wonder if this is really where we should have ended, in a feminist revenge tale, with Luke as Emily’s ironic antagonist. 

Fair Play seems to want us to see Emily as its sole protagonist, and perhaps hero, but, truthfully, the duo are the more interesting subject. And does Luke, as a character, not as a representative of masculine oppression, really deserve the turns the script gives him in the third act? Even in one of his worst moments (not the worst), stating in a cruel and terrible way that Emily will never be accepted as an equal among the upper echelons of power, we can’t miss that his point is an important revelation of a corruption of character Emily has not seen in herself, and that she won’t subsequently avoid. A couple of glimpses like this, of skepticism about the whole enterprise they’ve committed themselves to, is enough to make us wonder why Fair Play wants to make Luke the scapegoat for a firm and a society that may appreciate what it gains from Emily’s boldness and productivity but that will always exploit and humiliate her far worse than it would her fiancé. In the ending we have, what has Emily actually won? It’s not clear that the film really expects us to ask this question.

Rather, it seems like the more interesting story would have been to examine how both partners, trying to maintain their best intentions for each other, are compelled by circumstances they could walk away from to make difficult and self-destructive decisions over what they value more, each other or professional success in an exploitative industry. That is, while Fair Play’s interest in the injustices and violence of gender inequality is laudable, it’s missed a great opportunity to do that and also to more substantively critique a system—our system, The System—that depends on individuals and communities (colleagues, lovers, larger units of society) alienating and destroying each other for financial gain and shallow prestige.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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