Even if Sophia Takal’s second film were merely a straightforward psychological thriller about the rivalry between two actress friends, it would still be gripping from start to finish. There’s a rising feeling of panic as the movie speeds toward its conclusion, aided by effectively twitchy editing, a pair of intense lead performances and a taut, twisty script. You would still leave the theater wanting to discuss what just happened and think about it for days. But “Always Shine” doesn’t restrain itself to genre conventions. Instead, it creates an unsettling narrative all the more unnerving for how it explores the way that women are often limited by traditional definitions of femininity and and the havoc that can wreak on their identity.
The movie begins with the quote, “It is a woman’s birthright to be attractive and charming, in a sense, it is her duty…She is the bowl of flowers on the table of life,” from John Robert Powers in “Secrets of Poise, Personality and Model Beauty.” Though the book was published in the ’60s, “Always Shine” quickly establishes that its perspective still prevails today. We’re introduced to a screaming Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) in close-up, begging, “Please don’t kill me.” In a moment, it’s clear that she’s trying out for a role in a horror film, but the audition itself is an ordeal, with the disembodied voices of the male producers patronizing her. When they tell her that a lot of nudity is required, they assure her, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. We’ll make sure you look beautiful.” Cue internal screams from both Beth and the viewer.
Shortly after, we meet fellow actress Anna (Mackenzie Davis), who is also at an audition. By contrast, her potential part finds her unwilling to be the victim, even if it’s only of overcharging at an auto repair shop. Both women find their audition experiences echoed in their daily lives to their frustration. When Anna and Beth meet, we learn that they are friends, but there are hints of a professional rivalry between the actresses that becomes more evident as the film progresses. They drive from Los Angeles up to Big Sur for a vacation, and the location’s remoteness and spotty cell phone service lead to an atmosphere of isolation and growing unease. As “Always Shine” moves toward what we’re sure won’t be a happy ending, there’s a mounting sense of dread amidst their everyday conversation and walks on the beach.
Since both the script and the performances do such a good job establishing Anna and Beth’s characters, the turns in the final act feel entirely earned and work better than they might in a lesser film. Davis (“Halt And Catch Fire”) and Fitzgerald (“Masters Of Sex”) are some of the best parts of the TV shows they currently co-star in, but here they get and deserve top billing. Other actors appear fleetingly, but this movie is all theirs. As great as they each are in delivering lines from Lawrence Michael Levine’s well-crafted screenplay, the real evidence of their talent is in their reactions, primarily in how they respond to one another. Anna and Beth’s friendship is one filled with undermining, jealousy, anger and uncertainty, and Davis and FitzGerald communicate each emotion perfectly. Between the genre and the size of the film, these are the types of roles that don’t generally get recognized during awards season, but they’ll likely be among the year’s best performances.
“Always Shine” has echoes of Brian De Palma, David Lynch and Ingmar Bergman, though it simultaneously maintains a presence all its own. While the work of those filmmakers often focuses on female characters, a woman director brings a unique perspective to its story of friendship, jealousy and obsession, framing it within the larger concerns of feminism. While it does explore current issues, you’re not getting handed a syllabus in Women’s Studies 101. Instead, its energies are focused toward showcasing the environment its characters reside in and how that shapes who they are and their actions. Even though Takal (“Green“) was likely influenced by the aforementioned auteurs, her directorial vision is still distinctly her own. “Always Shine” is a film with plenty of style, from its title sequence with an ’80s font and frenetic pace to its final cut to black. Long takes and close-ups ensure the audience can’t escape the tension. She’s aided by fine cinematography from Mark Schwartzbard, who captures the expansive beauty of Big Sur’s ocean views and its shadowy forests, and defines the evolving relationship between Anna and Beth with more subtle camera movement. Additional credit is due to Michael Montes’ score, which alternates between traditional strings and screaming, screeching dissonance.
Takal’s movie succeeds from every angle: psychological thriller, classic two-hander, and a feminist exploration of women’s prescribed roles in Hollywood and beyond. It’s simultaneously incredibly pleasurable and quite disturbing, owing to its chilling elements and commentary on larger issues. If there’s any fairness in this world — and this film reminds us that there often isn’t — “Always Shine” will be a breakout hit with audiences and launch its talented director and stars to the next level. [A-]