Antiquated gender norms and a suppressed female voice are enough to fume those trying to make a mark or just get noticed in the entertainment industry. Sometimes, they can take a psychological toll on someone. With the deliciously prickly, increasingly tense, and confidently acted indie horror-drama Always Shine, director Sophia Takal (making her sophomore effort behind the camera) responds to such notions, along with the cut-throat competition among friends in the biz. Rather than standing on a soapbox as an on-the-nose statement, Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine (2015’s Wild Canaries), also her husband, articulate their themes and story with simmering control, blurred lines between friends and enemies or colleagues and rivals, and as much bitter honesty and composure-cracking as Alex Ross Perry’s 2015’s startling woman-on-the-verge chamber piece Queen of Earth.
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) are friends who haven’t been as close as they used to be. They are both Los Angeles-based actresses, albeit with different degrees of success, perhaps due to their night-and-day demeanors. One is soft, submissive and attention-getting, and the other is hard, vituperative and insecure. One keeps quiet and plays in to the male-topped hierarchy of just knowing her place, and the other isn’t afraid to speak her mind and break the system. A girls’ weekend at Anna’s aunt’s house in Big Sur is their plan to reconnect. While things start off calm, as the two catch up and reminisce, there is an underlying jealousy in Anna, who’s tense and often argumentative. Their time grows even more contentious, and passive-aggression soon erupts into genuine aggression.
The off-center tone of Always Shine is precisely set, as a primal female scream and the sounds of running in the woods shift imperceptibly into Beth crying, pleading for her life and asking what she needs to do to live. The single take reveals to be Beth in a casting call for a horror movie, which might as well be a reality since her voice is confined by what her agent thinks is best for her career, even if “extensive nudity” calls for the project at hand. (It should be noted that for a film with an actress who has gotten nude in about ten consecutive horror films, there is no actual nudity to be found, even during shower and love scenes.) The juxtaposition of that is Anna in a heated argument about her refusal to pay an inflated bill at an auto-body shop. Like Beth’s first scene, Anna is speaking to the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall, with a blank wall behind her. As Anna raises her voice and begins to curse, the male voice in the room calls her the opposite of “lady-like,” and what seemingly began as an audition for Anna reveals itself to be an aggravating reality.
Once Anna picks up Beth and they head to Big Sur, Takal never rests to build an enveloping sense of dread and foreboding. The two women’s voices become distorted at one point and flash cuts of imagery to come set the viewer on edge. These momentarily trippy editorial choices (kudos to sharp editor Zach Clark), as well as composer Michael Montes’ ominous score, are germane to the psychological aspects of the story and serve the film as a disorienting and elliptical headspace that Beth and Anna enter. When an excited fan (Colleen Camp) of Beth’s work on a television show recognizes her and comes up to them at lunch, Anna’s face says it all. She feels like an afterthought and she is tired of it. When Anna and Beth go grab a drink, an older man gets into a conversation with Anna, even though he remembers Beth’s name and not Anna’s and later gets Beth’s phone number while Anna goes to the restroom. Anna’s resentment is crystal-clear. The next morning, when Beth goes out to the patio to a stretching Anna, she starts taking a look at a script for another horror movie with yet another opportunity to take her clothes off, but a way of acting against-type as a sassy heroine. “Do you ever feel like a whore?” Anna coldly asks. After that, the two frenemies read together, and Anna ends up showing Beth how to really be “fucking sassy.” The single scene in the horror-movie script bleeds into the reality of Anna and Beth’s so-called friendship.
Though other characters do walk in and enter the equation, Always Shine is essentially an intimate two-hander. As the meek Beth, Caitlin FitzGerald is asked to play the conventionally sympathetic character on the surface, but at the same time, Beth is like the beautiful ingenue who would comply and sleep with her director if she was propositioned. She is passive and without a voice or much of a backbone, but there is still complexity there. Before leaving for Big Sur, Beth and boyfriend Paul (Khan Baykal) run into Matt (Alexander Koch), a mutual friend who makes short films; because of Beth, Matt tells her that he has been thinking of Anna and that she would be the perfect choice for his latest project. Coincidentally, Matt is spending the weekend at Big Sur, too, and when she and Anna later run into him while on a hike, Anna is none too happy that Beth never shared this exciting offer with her. Is that Beth’s way of making sure Anna never finds success, or is Anna just overreacting? As Anna, Mackenzie Davis is incredibly unnerving with the right amount of intense volatility that resists coming off actor-y and histrionic. While she does have the showier part of the two friends, Anna does evolve and completely loses her identity in the third act. Beyond just making perfectly threatening if-looks-could-kill glares, Davis plunges right into the role free of inhibitions but not an explosive temper.
With marks of comparison to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Alex Ross Perry’s aforementioned Queen of Earth not going unnoticed, Always Shine makes its own imprint as a hopeless, devastatingly unsettling cautionary tale about a toxic female relationship and gender politics in the acting world. Thrillingly experimental and even more interpretative than the standard sub-‘Single White Female’ thriller it could have been in lesser hands, the film subverts the woman-in-peril formula with a deliciously feminist undercurrent that has never felt more relevant or crucial. On behalf of Takal and Levine, this living nightmare should speak to any artist who does the work and feels less than equal to his or her competition. It’s disturbing, it’s thematically incisive, and it knocks the viewer on their ass.