Max Bryson is a young, ambitious hotshot CEO of an investment firm: a financial wunderkind and budding tycoon for a new Gilded Age. Charming, smart and full of drive, he dreams of expanding his reach beyond the cloistered world of high finance where he built a budding empire -- he wants to make an impact on the world.
But when he decides to spearhead a Brooklyn neighborhood project in the hopes of revitalizing its local art scene, he encounters resistance from many fronts. For the first time, he is confronted with obstacles that he can't quite control or charm his way out of. But as he tries to overcome those roadblocks, he is faced with his limitations.
Written and directed by Sheldon Chau with Tom Castelazo, this short drama possesses glossy cinematography, polished production value and smooth camerawork that evokes gleaming prosperity and wealth. It's an appropriate visual milieu for its main character Max, a young powerhouse in business, who seems to draw people, camera movements and capital into his orbit with sure-handed confidence. Yet that confidence -- and the money that enables that sense of absolute control -- is as fragile as the glass boxes that Max lives and plays in, as explored in this dark corporate fable.
Max falls into the lineage of other recent young business "bros" that seem driven to prove something about themselves, whether it's the new breed of tech CEOs or even an earlier antecedent like Jay Gatsby. As such, the storytelling and narrative structure function as a kind of portrait, told from a variety of perspectives and driven by a reporter trying to put together a story about Max for a local blog. As the reporter probes Max, Max doesn't reveal a lot of vulnerability, preferring to control the conversation on his terms and evading the more penetrating questions. It seeks a matter of privacy, perhaps, but also hints at something darker in himself.
Actor Ethan Peck -- currently seen in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds as the young Spock -- plays Max Bryson with smooth, unruffled assurance and just a slight hint of self-satisfaction. He's not an egotistical narcissist on the surface, but someone who genuinely wants to make his mark on the world. He conceives a scheme to buy up real estate in Bushwick, but the project becomes an obsession, one that Max sinks everything into -- even at the expense of everything else, including his namesake firm and maybe his integrity. When he overreaches and loses everything, he must face the reality of failure and perhaps the fault lines of his character.
"In Max We Trust" is as freewheeling and high-voltage as the high-finance transactions Max trafficks in, cramming a feature's worth of narrative into a short film format. A longer length would offer more intimacy with the characters, as well as develop the other side of the characters affected by Max's development project. But the short itself intrigues with a fascinating cocktail of ideas about gentrification, capitalism, wealth and power. It's also a riddle: is Max a good man or not? His wealth and privilege put him in a bubble, one that distorts the perception of reality around him, and perhaps even distorts his self-perception. Maybe he does mean well. But when great wealth enables and enlarges the scale of someone's mistakes -- making them colossal and damaging many others in the process -- it raises the question if such wealth is ethical, or perhaps even dangerous, to the world and the soul.