Fair Play: In the Sundance thriller worth fighting for

Fair Play: In the Sundance thriller worth fighting for

An emerging sub-theme at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is astute examinations of the dynamics between men and women. Susanna Fogel’s Cat Person is an adaptation of Kristen Roupenian’s New York short story about different perspectives on a date gone wrong. Nicole Newnham’s documentary The Disappearance of Shere Hite explores reactions to the well-known sexologist and author.

“Fair Play,” which premieres Friday as part of the festival’s US Drama Competition, is writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature film debut, told in an elegant, seductive style that throws audiences off-balance, draws them in, excites them at the same time and disoriented. Shot under the T-Street production banner by Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman, the film stars Phoebe Dynevor (Bridgerton) and Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rules Don’t Apply) as Alice and Hatch. both employees at a highly competitive New York financial firm. When Alice gets a promotion Luke thought was his, their relationship begins to unravel. As Alice finds herself in her new position, Luke feels he is being left behind and they are both pushed to the breaking point.

Raised in Studio City, Domont attended film school in New York City and began her career there before returning to Los Angeles. Her short films Haze and All Good Things have screened at numerous festivals, and she also wrote and directed the series Ballers and directed episodes of Billions.

Domont had started writing Fair Play before getting the job at Billions, also set in the New York financial industry. She has long been interested in this world of films like Wall Street and Working Girl and found a suitable framework for her own story in it.

“I was interested in something that involved high stakes,” Domont said. “I was interested in how the toxicity of a work environment affects the toxicity of a relationship and vice versa.”

She took part in a video call to talk about the film just days before the Sundance world premiere of Fair Play.

Given that the world of finance is so often viewed as this hyper-masculine environment, what drew you to use this environment to study the dynamics of relationships between men and women?

First of all, #MeToo never reached the financial world. These guys have never been held accountable for anything because money and power at this level can’t touch these people. And women are forced to play ugly to survive in such a world and with such men. What they have to sacrifice in order to rise in this world was important for the story I wanted to tell.

Was that a challenge for the cast? How did you end up with Phoebe and Alden?

Emily is a rising star in the world of finance and I thought filling a rising star would be exciting. And Phoebe, coming from “Bridgerton,” had that buzz for her. But what was really exciting was that she had never done anything like this before. And that’s what appeals to me about casting. I think everyone we cast in this film has never done anything like this before.

As for Phoebe’s qualities, she’s so present, she’s so in the moment, that’s really her greatest strength. She really listens, she really reacts. This is a key factor in any great achievement. She also has a warmth and vulnerability, but also a wildness and above all an untamed rage that I wanted to draw out of her.

But I always knew that the character of Luke needed a really confident man to play that level of insecurity. Because a male actor who is insecure himself might be insecure about going to those unsafe places. So I knew that everyone I cast had to be really confident, comfortable in their own skin with who they are. And that was Alden. He just dove head first into those places without question.

A shadowy image of the faces of a man and a woman, his gaze averted from hers.

Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor in Chloe Domont’s Fair Play, an Official Selection of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

(Sundance Institute)

As the film plays, the point of view of the story really breaks, the perspective seems to shift, making it less certain for a viewer as to who you are with. What made you decide to tell the story in this way?

I’m not interested in telling stories that are black and white, where you’re definitely with one character and definitely against another character. I just don’t think that’s realistic either. Luke, in terms of his character, there is so much he struggles with. He loves Emily for her ambition, drive, and intelligence, but he can’t help but feel threatened by the same things he loves about her. And that doesn’t make him a bad guy.

And that was important to me: he’s not a bad guy. He’s struggling with something that I don’t think is really his fault. It’s the way he was raised, the way he was conditioned, the way he was wired. … I think this is a systemic social problem. Society mostly still spreads only one image of masculinity and one image of success for heterosexual men. And if they don’t fit in there, they feel like failures.

I really started writing from a place of anger. But the more I developed it, the more I got into his character, the more I realized that it was a tragedy on both sides. … Luke chooses a destructive path because he sees no other way out of his pain.

The last few scenes in particular become very complex in terms of the dynamics of their relationship, who is to blame, who is pushing and triggering what is happening between them. Was it difficult for you to modulate this ambiguity, whether in writing or directing Phoebe and Alden?

[The characters] do the best they can. They’re both in a lot of pain, and they’re reacting to that pain that neither of them knows how to deal with, and worse, they don’t know how to talk about it. And so they start working through it the wrong way. In many ways, this film shows the ramifications of what happens when these issues go silent.

No one will come out of the movie feeling the same towards the characters in every moment. It will be so specific to who they are in their own personal experiences. Some people will come out and they will be with her for the second half of the film; Some people will come out and they will be with him. A lot of people are going to come out and go back and forth, and I think it’s just very specific to who they are. For me, it was trying to just lean into empathy all the time.

He’s just not equipped to deal with his pain and an outcome he doesn’t know. And the same with her. I think the film really shows the problems of women walking on eggshells trying to protect the male ego. None of them really know how to deal with it in a healthy way. And that’s what’s human about it. That was the exciting part for me. This is what escalates the drama and conflict.

Are you ready for people to get upset by refusing clear answers and throwing an audience off-balance?

Oh yeah. I hope this film stimulates conversation. I hope it sparks debate. And it would be great if people in the parking lot were fighting over this movie. I’m not here to make safe films. I’m here to stir the pot. And I’m interested in why people are angry about it, why people are upset about it. I’m curious what that says about her. I think the first thing people will be angry about is that she’s not a victim, and I’m not interested in keeping women in this box of victimization. That’s not the character. The character is here to get hers. I’m sure people will be upset about this and I think that’s essential to the type of film I’ve made.

I know you haven’t had a chance to see them yet, but there are a few other films in the Sundance lineup – films like Cat Person and The Disappearance of Shere Hite – that also draw heavily on the differences deal with the perspectives of men and women and the often unbridgeable gap between the perspectives of certain situations. Why do you find the dynamics between men and women in heterosexual relationships so fruitful for exploration?

No matter how much progress we’ve made, we still can’t understand each other. I don’t think men and women can do that. Something stands in the way. And I think given the current climate that we’re in, it’s made it a little bit worse, because we’re all afraid to talk about things that might make us uncomfortable or not kosher. And instead of admitting that and being honest about it, let’s just push it down. Also, for me, this film was about reckoning with a lot of unresolved feelings that I had in my own personal experiences with this type of dynamic.

I was in a relationship with someone who was threatened by me and threatened by who I was and what I wanted out of life. And instead of being able to talk about it, the only way I knew how to deal with it was by shrinking in a desperate attempt to protect the relationship. It was never something either of us could talk about because we never wanted to admit that dynamic was real. We both support each other. We are both attracted to each other because of who we are. But at the same time certain things were rotting at the core. And so I’m just raising the alarm for something that I don’t think should be normalized. Saying something had been something very unspeakable for me for so long.

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