Best Of Sundance 2023: Relationships Under Strain In ‘Fair Play’ And ‘You Hurt My Feelings'

America's largest indie film festival is upon us. Gayle Sequeira keeps track of the films that deserve a spotlight
Best Of Sundance 2023: Relationships Under Strain In ‘Fair Play’ And ‘You Hurt My Feelings'

A sleek, twisty relationship drama about the secretive thrill of a workplace affair morphs into a psychological thriller fuelled by the prickly insecurity of having to report to your partner in Chloe Domont’s Fair Play.  By the time analyst Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) gets the promotion she and her partner Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) both assumed would go to him, the film has already established the backbreaking, backstabbing pressures of their cutthroat finance job. Now, it reimagines the workplace as a gladiatorial arena, and the work as a bloodsport

Domont’s depictions of finance bro misogyny are pointedly familiar — Emily’s ascent is immediately accompanied by rumors of her having slept her way to the top, an after-work party takes place at a strip club — and go a long way in establishing just who these two characters are as people. The only woman at the office just wants to fit in. The man feels entitled to. She’s spent a lifetime practicing how to keep her expression neutral  upon being exposed to her colleagues’ degrading jokes. He must now practice how to hide his wounded ego behind a smile and a weak congratulations. In laying out the gender dynamics of a toxic workplace, Domont sets up the power plays that will come to define this twisted relationship. 

Best Of Sundance 2023: Relationships Under Strain In ‘Fair Play’ And ‘You Hurt My Feelings'
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It isn’t long before this previously blissfully-in-love couple begin to splinter. Offers of help start to sound condescending. Affectionate in-jokes begin to sound like veiled barbs. Gestures of affection reek of overcompensation. The boundaries between work and home become non-existent. As Emily’s promotion begins to affect Luke emotionally, psychologically, even eating away at his masculinity and sexual interest, Fair Play begins to simmer a brew of male fragility and workplace sexism until the movie becomes harrowingly tense. Dynevor and Ehrenreich are fantastic sparring partners, inadvertently revealing just as much as they cautiously conceal. 

Even as it descends into a cat-and-mouse game of psychological warfare, the film remains rooted in an astute understanding of the delicate balance of any relationship, the little hurts that accumulate once that balance tips, the slights that begin to feel deliberate. What does it mean to have to report to a partner who, until that week, was your equal? At what point does their success become a personal failing? Power doesn’t change people, it reveals them, and in crafting this terrifying, terrific film, Domont points out that Emily is for one devastating revelation. 


A setback of a different kind threatens to disrupt a marriage in Nicole Holofcener’s warm, witty and thoughtful You Hurt My Feelings, in which an author overhears her husband reveal that he doesn’t think her new book is any good, after having reassured her several times that it is. His is the kind of carelessly cutting remark that leaves a lasting scar, spurring larger observations about whether white lies are really better than harsh truths, if comforting platitudes are worth the price of dishonesty and if it’s really possible to love someone when you don’t care for a large part of what makes them, them.

Therapist Don (Tobias Menzies) and author Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily married couple, grossing out their son (Owen Teague) with how they affectionately share bites of food. His job hinges on listening and communication, hers requires her to patiently observe and notice details; qualities on which it’s easy enough to assume their healthy relationship is based. Then, at an anniversary dinner, they exchange gifts with a carefully modulated enthusiasm that suggests an unwillingness to admit the other’s got it all wrong. This is the bedrock of their marriage — little white lies and omissions designed to spare each other’s feelings. It’s exactly why Don’s remark about Beth’s new book sends her into a spiral, pushing her to wonder what else he’s been hiding. He’s someone people pay to to deal with their problems. She helps young writers navigate their pain and channel it into their art. Why then, is it so hard for them to just communicate with each other? 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus in You Hurt My Feelings.

Holofcener’s earlier screenplay for the 2018 Lee Israel biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me? was an empathetic look at a lonely author pushed into forgery schemes to earn a living. Where that film followed a writer for whom the most crushing blow was that it wasn’t her voice people were interested in, but her ability to mimic others’, You Hurt My Feelings turns the idea of professional rejection personal. It isn’t really public validation Beth seeks, just that of the one person who means the world to her. The film makes its point with a wry humour. The characters are simultaneously aware enough to acknowledge that the world is burning and self-centered enough to see that their personal hurts don’t cease to matter because of it.  They’re also up against time itself, and the frightening realisation that having devoted years to a practice doesn’t necessarily translate to being good at it.

One of the film’s many gently probing ideas has to do with how other people’s expectations can become the scale with which we measure our self-worth. If they’re too high, we’re bound to fail. Too low, and we’ve failed anyway by setting a disappointing standard. In examining the scope and limits of honesty, You Hurt My Feelings emerges as an honest drama about necessary truths and loving omissions, and the people we can trust to tell the difference.

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