In a sea of films premiering at Sundance and the early festival season, it’s becoming harder to stand out. To avoid the all too common fate of a forgotten VOD release or, forbid, not getting released at all, a project must be truly exceptional. The ideal festival breakout works within its limitations but doesn’t feel small under a strong voice. Coming off directing popular TV shows like Billions and Star Trek: Discovery, filmmaker Chloe Domont makes a resounding splash with the confident relationship drama/thriller hybrid Fair Play, whose $20 million sale to Netflix after an intense bidding war should tell you all you need to know. Turning the intimate drama of a loving relationship into a fraught war zone, Fair Play is a bold, confident vision that will likely exceed being simply the gem of the fest to being one of the standout films of 2023.
Financial firm analysts Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) have a good thing going. Despite having to keep their relationship a secret at the elite hedge fund they both work at, their life in a shared NYC apartment is bliss, recently culminating in a proposal from Luke. The Big Apple is their oyster, with a marriage and a rumored promotion for Luke on the horizon. In an instant, their relationship flips, as their well-respected boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan) gives Phoebe what was supposed to be Luke’s coveted promotion. Parallel to Phoebe rising in the ranks, what once was a full-blooming romance becomes something of a psychological competition between the two jealous lovers, escalating until it reaches a boiling point.
Alden Ehrenreich has always deserved better than only being known as the actor who once played young Han Solo in a buried Star Wars movie. In a sense, Fair Play seems like a follow-up to his character actor origins in Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro, the Coen’s Hail, Caesar!, and Park Chan-wook’s Stoker. He elevates the role of Luke into the stratosphere. What could’ve been your typical “nice guy goes bad” character is given astounding depth by the dance between Ehrenrich’s interpretation and Chloe Domont’s whip-smart script. Ehrenreich captures all the possible male fragility of hiding behind a plastic, seemingly warm smile. Watching his confidence slowly give way to a desperate attempt to fake that bravado makes your heart pump. Ehrenreich constantly redefines the Luke we thought we knew, eventually ending up with something spiteful, unnerving, pathetic, and utterly fascinating.
Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor is equally as formidable in Fair Play, conquering the difficult task imposed by Domont’s challenging screenplay. Emily has to consciously adapt to get ahead in a male-dominated environment. Dynevor expertly navigates the sleek transition of Emily putting on a facade in order to forcibly click with her toxic co-workers into her embracing the ways of the system, in many ways becoming the kind of problematic person she’s trying to get past. But Dynevor finds a sort of empowerment in conquering the workplace, even if it is undercut by a hint of guilt. There are hints of eroticism in the air, as Emily’s newfound success heightens her libido while the downtrodden Luke grows impotent. Sex becomes another wedge driving their relationship apart. From this power shift, Dynevor delivers a hard-hitting performance that stays with you long after the credits roll.
Fair Play gives Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich a remarkably slick sandbox to play in. The sanitized gray sheen of the hedge fund offices courtesy of cinematographer Menno Mans creates a pressure cooker environment where each victory or failure Luke and Emily achieve feels amplified. Brian Mcomber’s propulsive score just drives the point home more – the juxtaposing of Emily’s ascendance into the male-dominated space with Luke being further pushed into a domestic role that appears to emasculate him. Such unbearable anxiety comes from how their very different fortunes are going to collide, as every action is given intense weight by Domont’s deep understanding of traditional gender roles and how, whether knowingly or not, an insecure man will act out if that patriarchal system is even slightly askew. When this finally comes to a head, Fair Play explodes into a white-hot ball of fire.
An unbelievable amount of this success is due to, once again, how much writer-director Chloe Domont has on her mind. This is a cunning film, that isn’t only about the heavy hand of the patriarchy. Fair Play details the corrupting nature of power, via the character of Emily. In the case of Luke, It’s about conquering pre-determined societal weakness. We see how the mixture of business and pleasure can quickly sour. Mostly, though, Fair Play highlights how a drastic dynamic change within a relationship can fundamentally morph, or perhaps expose, the people involved for who they really are. Domont’s creative hand is nothing short of masterful, to the point where it feels as if we’re watching the birth of one of today’s great new storytellers.
Chloe Domont’s feature debut – produced by MCR and Rian Johnson‘s own T-Street Productions – tells a tight, layered, and provocative tale of untamed jealousy. The cast, script, direction, and all elements in between work in perfect tandem in service of an experience that feels modern in the most eerily honest way. Turning this power-driven human drama into a sweaty palm, pulse-pounding thriller may be one of the most subversive moves we’ve seen a filmmaker make recently. At the very least, it makes for a damn perfect film. Fair Play is one of the absolute best from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. In fact, Netflix might have underpaid for this one.