Fair Play, Dumb Money, Flora and Son | TIFF ’23 capsule reviews

by W. Andrew Powell

The 48th Toronto International Film Festival kicked off on Thursday, September 7, and among the more than 200 films, I picked five films that stood out.

Read my review of Fair Play, Dumb Money, Flora and Son, The Royal Hotel, and Widow Clicquot.

Fair Play

Fair Play

Rated: 8/10

Writer and director Chloe Domont delivers a disturbing, taunt, and hugely relevant thriller with Fair Play, and while it’s not as erotic as it’s being sold, it’s a superbly tense drama. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich star as a power couple in the finance world, and they seem totally in sync and driven until Emily (Dynevor) earns a major promotion over Luke (Ehrenreich).

The tension from that point builds and builds with Luke devolving into the worst of any man, while Emily earns every ounce of power. The power dynamic and evolution of their relationship is everything, and it’s a terrible ride to see where things end. While I have some complaints about a few moments, the film makes me very eager to see what’s to come from Domont.

Dumb Money

Dumb Money

Rated: 7.5/10

The story behind Dumb Money should be very familiar to many people, since it was ripped from pandemic headlines, but it also immediately reminded me of films like The Big Short. Director Craig Gillespie brings real-life YouTuber Keith Gill’s story to life with Paul Dano in the lead, and a fantastic supporting cast. It’s a classic story of greed, obsession, and regular people winning out over billionaires, and it works incredibly well.

Keith is the obsessed armchair investor that ignited the subreddit r/WallStreetBets’ fight with Wall Street for GameStop stock. In between the rise of the stock, Dumb Money tells the story of how people can win against big money when they’re focused, but it’s also the story of how the major investors of the world never really face the consequences they seem to deserve.

Flora and Son

Rated: 8.5/10

Director John Carney has been making charming music-driven dramas since 2007’s Oscar-winning Once, and Flora and Son feels like his most natural and heartfelt. Eve Hewson stars as Flora, a struggling single mother trying to help her son Max, played by Orén Kinlan. When she realizes Max’s passion for making music, she connects with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an LA musician who ends up igniting her passion for music.

While the songs didn’t grab me as strongly as Sing Street or Once, the performances are full of heart, and Hewson and Gordon-Levitt are amazing. The two stars, and Kinlan, leap off the screen, and I love the film’s authentic depth with dreamers, making music, and following their hearts.

The Royal Hotel

The Royal Hotel

Rated: 8.5/10

The Royal Hotel is so freaking tense, smartly told, and well acted that it feels like you’re slowly getting crushed watching these young backpackers try to survive a remote mining town in the Australian Outback. At times, you almost expect violence to erupt everywhere, but director Kitty Green is telling a more everyday story about the way men abuse women in gestures, attitudes, at work, and emotionally.

Julia Garner and Jessica Henwick star as Hanna and Liv, two travellers who decide to take a job for a while so they can continue their journey, rather than going home. Over the film they struggle with their friendship as they face off against Billy (Hugo Weaving), the pub owner, and the denizens of the bar who feel like they’re constantly waiting to cause trouble. Weaving is remarkable and it’s hard to even realize that it’s him in this story that ends with a climactic finish that lifts the tension in one incredible moment.

Widow Clicquot

Widow Clicquot

Rated: 6/10

Seeing Widow Clicquot after I had toured the cellars of the famed Veuve Clicquot Champagne house in the summer, and learned a bit about her story, may have set me up to be a little disappointed. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot, played in the film by Haley Bennett, was an innovator in a time when women couldn’t even be business owners. There’s a lot to her story, and director Thomas Napper approaches her life with care, but it feels like some of the revelations are lost between the less interesting love stories, and her husband François’ (Tom Sturridge) mental illness.

If you don’t know Barbe-Nicole’s story, Widow Clicquot is a great primer, but I expected a little more from the story.

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