“Always Shine” opens with a terrific layering of two experiences: Anna (Mackenzie Davis) auditions for a role in a cheesy thriller, delivering her lines with her best frantic cadences. As director Sophia Takal zeroes in on the camera watching Anna’s delivery, “Always Shine” sets the stage for a involving thriller about the relationship between performance and emotional reality, probing the chaotic possibilities when those two ingredients collide.
With a studied approach to genre filmmaking that calls to mind Brian De Palma at his best, “Always Shine” finds Anna in the midst of a cold war battle with longtime pal Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), whose ability to land bigger roles creates a natural divide between them. Their conflict comes to a head over the course of a long weekend in Big Sur, where the pair retreat to a cabin in an attempt to relax — and instead wind up literally at each other’s throats.
Though Takal and screenwriter/husband Lawrence Michael Levine sometimes emphasize the mounting tension between the two women too bluntly, the movie’s atmospheric, noir-like proceedings yield a constant sense of intrigue. Takal’s first feature, “Green,” had the sketches of an eerie, contained psychological drama that comes to full bloom here. As Anna, Davis is a natural fit to play the combustible, energetic opposite of FitzGerald’s soft-spoken Beth. When the pair leave the city for their getaway, the conflict really takes off.
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At a bar, they compete for the attention of an older man, and Takal’s camerawork does all the real talking: a masterful shot finds one half of the duo looking at her rival flirt with their target as the action is reflected in the glass. With such inventive imagery, “Always Shine” immerses viewers in the developing resentment between the pair, with the palpable suspense situated around the question of when either woman will finally act out.
“Always Shine” offers several of these inspired moments, and though at times its formal trickery feels a bit obvious, a mysterious atmosphere hangs tightly over the proceedings to great effect. The script features several bold gambles, most notably when it shifts to a new scenario in its third act, as Beth forms a questionable relationship with a local bartender (Levine). But the slick camerawork, empowered by Michael Montes’ Carpenteresque score, constantly orients us in the characters’ frantic mindset.
At the same time, “Always Shine” contains a hint of satire visible to anyone tracking recent accomplishments in American independent film.
Takal and Levine are among some of the ubiquitous faces surfacing in smaller work at various American film festivals over the past decade, and the movie’s keen look at pithy conflicts blown out of proportion speak to the potential downside of such an insular community. (“You can’t even get a part in a fucking avant garde short!” Beth fumes to her former buddy.)
Aesthetically, “Always Shine” also bears a relationship to that scene, and the low-budget narratives that tend to come out of it. The film’s premise calls to mind Joe Swanberg’s meta-horror movie “Silver Bullets” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth,” which both revolved around two women and ex-pals coming to blows at a remote cabin. But whereas those films tackled their subjects in heady, abstract terms, “Always Shine” offers a smoother access point. It’s a studied genre exercise with a clean focus that foregrounds its two performances.
Building to a disquieting climax, the story finds Davis saying much with only the subtlest of expressions and no words, marking a welcome shift from the showy delivery that mars her character’s auditions. It’s a final testament to the performative control that carries the movie along. Even as the movie lingers on the question of whether one woman has more talent than the other, “Always Shine” is an effective actor’s showcase for both of them.
“Always Shine” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.