Posted on August 11, 2016 at 5:37 pm

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2016
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2016
“Equity” is a razor-sharp financial thriller about people who are themselves razor sharp. Their battlefields are boardrooms and trading floors but the stakes are high and the rules are just a starting point. There has been some understandable buzz about the background of the film, the first major national release to be entirely made by and about women. But this is in no way a stunt. It is a way to explore the way that the movie’s characters experience the ultra-testosteronic world of Wall Street, and, as we watch them, to explore our own assumptions and biases as well.

Anna Gunn (“Breaking Bad”) plays Naomi Bishop, an ambitious, even ruthless investment banker who knows she has to be twice as smart and work twice as hard in the ultra-competitive world of high finance. Her job is to persuade highly successful privately held firms to let her take them public by being listed on the stock exchange, which means huge fees for her company. That involves a lot of tricky arithmetic to come up with a valuation on the stock they will be selling that is high enough to entice the owners of the private company to agree to the deal, but low enough that the stock will gain in value as soon as the deal goes through. It also involves a lot of tricky diplomacy, stroking and soothing the egos of the clients, who are being courted by every firm on Wall Street.

Naomi appears on a panel before a group of young woman and is very frank about her priorities. When she is asked, “What’s that thing that makes you want to get up in the morning?” she says, “I like money.” She also says that she thinks the time has finally come when it is permissible to say so. On that, she could be wrong, especially from a woman.

Naomi wants and believes she deserves a promotion. But she has just made the first mistake of her career, mismanaging an important deal. It may be that a it would not be as serious a setback for a male in her position. Or it could be that her anxiety about the mistake has clouded her judgment about the best time to push for the promotion. But she needs a win badly. She has an equally ambitious deputy named Erin (producer and co-story writer Sarah Megan Thomas), who is pregnant. This triggers in Naomi, who is unmarried and childless, all of the conflicts we can imagine, though the screenplay is too smart to spell it out too explicitly. Can Erin make the kind of commitment the job needs and, just as important, how can she persuade the client that she will? Both Naomi and Erin know they have to come across to their colleagues, bosses, and clients as confident but not arrogant, dedicated but not reckless.

There is another ambitious woman, Samantha (producer and co-story writer Alysia Reiner), a classmate of Naomi’s, now a prosecutor who is looking for her own big win. At big financial companies, there is a “Chinese Wall” division between the investment bankers like Naomi and people who buy and sell stock, like hedge fund managers. It is illegal and absolutely forbidden for them to exchange “insider” information about deals and there are many rules and structures to make sure that they do not. Could that be why one of those hedge fund managers is romancing Naomi?

The story is taut and engrossing, fraught with moral hazard that would be just as compelling outside of high finance, in a factory or a university, but benefits from the high stakes and provocative details — and from a fresh perspective that adds dramatic heft and makes it clear how much we can learn from letting women tell their own stories.

Parents should know that this film includes very strong language, some sexual references, drinking, smoking, and criminal behavior.

Family discussion: What gets you out of bed in the morning? Would you want to work with Naomi? How would the character’s situation be different if she was a man?

If you like this, try: “Margin Call”

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Drama Gender and Diversity