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Sundance 2023 Review: Fair Play – “It fills a void that has been largely vacant”

Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich appear in Fair Play by Chloe Domont, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Emily (Bridgerton‘s Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich, Solo: A Star Wars Story) are a seemingly idyllic couple.  They are so into each other that the call of a restaurant bathroom is too much for them to resist one another.  Newly engaged, they share an apartment together, they share ambition, they share champagne in the shower.  The only thing they can’t share is the office’s newest promotion.

Working at a high-stakes financial firm where your worth is only as good as last quarter’s trading profits, Emily and Luke’s relationship is a secret and against company policy.  Each morning they walk out of their apartment door, lockstep.  Then he turns right, and she turns left.  At work, they are colleagues, only really dropping the facade in the safety of their home.  Despite this secret, the couple seems unstoppable, until that coveted promotion goes not to Luke as expected, but to Emily instead.

Check out all of our Sundance coverage

Now, the dynamic of power shifted, the couple begins to unravel.  Emily becomes more and more comfortable in the ‘boy’s club,’ the only female executive (one of the only women period) in the office, working hard to earn and keep her place at the top.  Luke becomes more jealous, his manhood in this dynamic threatened.  With tension mounting between the two, there is also escalating suspicion, blame and mind games.  We watch as this idyllic couple turns toxic, only to wonder how far each of them may go.

Writer-director Chloe Domont crafts an impressive feature debut with Fair Play, lighting a fuse that slowly smoulders throughout.  You barely notice how much this movie creeps under your skin until you realize your heart rate has been rising this whole time, wondering where the heck this film is going, how much of an explosion is just around the corner.  Yes, this film like many thrillers veers into the melodramatic, but it’s still controlled and restrained somehow, always maintaining its grip on you.

Domont also does not shy away from the gender war at the centre of this burgeoning feud.  Will Luke, who keeps trying to assert himself and subtly (and then not so subtly) bring Emily down with his comments lean into this to save his own feelings of inadequacy?  Or will he realize the errors of his ways and the fact that it’s 2023 and know his fiance earned her place as his boss?  Will Emily try and comfort him or bring herself down to make him feel better?  Should she?  To save her relationship?  I know what you’re shouting right now, but believe me, Domont is good at making your allegiances waver, just a little bit, despite yourself cringing at the result.  She also surrounds Emily with the worst male colleagues possible, so larger questions emerge, like should a woman go along with guys’ gross ‘locker room talk’ just to fit in?  How much should we really put up with as the price of success?

I could go on, but at the end of the day, the two people that make all this believable are Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich who, in the span of 113 minutes go from happy, smiling and in love to spitting absolute vitriol at one another.  For Dynevor this is certainly a difference in range from the role of Daphne she plays in Bridgerton, and a welcome sight to see her embrace these moments of nastiness.  Same for Ehrenreich, who hasn’t been given a fair shake since his turn as Han Solo in 2018.  Fair Play may change that.

Fair Play is a relationship drama, at times a corporate thriller, but always smartly presented right up to the way it cleverly mirrors itself at its conclusion.  It fills a void that has been largely vacant as of late and putting this spin on power dynamics and gender roles just continues to demonstrate how important it is to have women filmmakers for a change in perspective.  This may be Chloe Domont’s feature debut, but it certainly won’t be her finale.

Fair Play premiered at Sundance January 20th and has in person screenings until the 26th.  If in the U.S., an online screening begins January 24th.  For ticket information go to the festival webpage.

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