Directed by: Sophia Takal.
Written by: Lawrence Michael Levine.
Starring: Mackenzie Davis (Anna), Caitlin FitzGerald (Beth), Lawrence Michael Levine (Jesse), Khan Baykal (Paul), Alexander Koch (Matt), Michael Lowry (Vic), Colleen Camp (Sandra), Jane Adams (Summer).
Always Shine is a fascinating horror movie about a Hollywood misogyny, toxic female friendships, and the blurring of reality. It owes a debt to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. – and while it doesn’t reach those heights (which would be hard, since they are two of the best films ever made) – it’s still a film that has an interesting take, and gets weirder and more surreal as it moves along. I’m not sure all the twists work – but they’re all interesting.
The film opens with two very similar scenes – of the two stars talking directly into the camera. First there is Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) – reading lines for what sounds like a rather lame horror film – and then having a discussion with the director and producer – who talk about how the nudity in this film will be extensive, but it’s vital to the project, as they want to shoot very “veritie” style. Next is Anna (Mackenzie Davis), and at first it seems like perhaps she is auditioning as well – as the shot in exactly the same – except it turns out that no, she isn’t – she really is arguing with a mechanic who is trying to rip her off. These two scenes establish both of these characters quickly – both are actresses, both are friends, both are “pretty blondes” – but Beth is pliant and amicable, and Anna is abrasive and unwilling to take shit. It’s no wonder Beth’s career is on the rise, and Anna’s isn’t – it has nothing to do with talent, but personality – and Beth has the personality that men want – and they’re the ones calling the shots.
The simmering tension of their “friendship” is at the heart of Always Shine. The pair of them head to a cabin in Big Sur for a mini-vacation – although the tension is there from the beginning. Anna resents Beth because her career is taking off, and Anna is struggling to get anything. And yet, Beth is so seemingly nice – seemingly considerate of Anna, it’s hard to get too mad at her, right? I mean, Beth doesn’t even share her biggest news with Beth – doesn’t tell her she’s going to be in a magazine’s “new Hollywood” issue, doesn’t tell her that she’s going to be a lead in a real movie (even if it does sound dumb) – a step up in her career. She really does try to not rub things in Beth’s face. Or, perhaps, is that just an act? Beth seems so nice and pliant, - but part of that is clearly an act. She clearly tries (and succeeds) to poach a man Anna has her eyes on (even if Beth has no real interest in him – she has a boyfriend at home), or doesn’t share other things with Beth either – like the possibility of a role in an Avant-garde short film, or Anna’s reel with her agent, etc. Anna is bitter and angry at Beth – but she really does have a reason to be.
The film runs 90 manures, and the first hour or so is pretty terrific. The two lead performances are great – FitzGerald, is perfect as the passive-aggressive Beth, and Mackenzie Davis – who has been doing great work for a while now – is even better as the more fiery Anna. The last half hour takes some surreal twists – it’s here where the film enters Persona/Mulholland Dr. territory – and while the performances never lag, and the direction remains top notch, the plot developments border on cliché – before jumping head first over that border.
Still, for most of its runtime, Always Shine is a terrific film – one that makes me want to seek out director Sophia Takal’s debut film, Green (2011) – and has me anxiously awaiting whatever she does next. Her direction is great throughout – and the point of view of the film is fascinating. This is an underseen gem.