An artfully shot, opaque psychological thriller.
Sophia Takal’s tense, beautiful Always Shine tells the story of Anna (Mackenzie Davis of Halt and Catch Fire) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald of Masters of Sex), best friends and competing actresses who embark on a girls’ weekend in a mountain cabin that goes horribly wrong. If the description sounds like a horror film, the shoe very nearly fits. Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine (Wild Canaries) have adopted a number of horror tropes to make a greater point about what is expected of women in Hollywood.
The shy and retiring Beth is the leading lady, while the bold and forthright Anna is struggling to make ends meet. Instead of pure horror, Always Shine is an artfully shot, opaque psychological thriller in the vein of relatively recent efforts like the sensational Mullholland Drive and the more subtle Martha Marcy May Marlene. And though Always Shine makes a powerful point about the horrors of being a woman in the film industry, it unfortunately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as Levine’s script veers towards fetishizing women rather than exploring them.
Opening with Beth staring straight at the camera, we find her auditioning for a role in a horror film while the men in the room tell her the role will require extensive nudity while frequently refer to her as “honey” and “sweetheart.” Shortly after, we’re introduced to Anna, also staring straight at the camera. But when the shot pans out it reveals she is not auditioning for a film, but rather arguing with a mechanic who won’t negotiate with her because she hasn’t acted “ladylike.” When Anna picks Beth up for a weekend getaway, the lines are already drawn: Beth is the shy but gorgeous leading lady while Anna is the crude and mouthy sidekick. If this were a horror film, Anna would die first.
But Always Shine isn’t a horror film, and instead what unfolds next is a tangled exploration of two women who each want desperately what the other has. Davis and FitzGerald are both sensational in what is basically a two-woman-show, owning the screen both independently and as a pair. Takal is obviously paying homage to directors like DePalma, Lynch and Schroeder here, and as Anna and Beth snipe at one another it becomes increasingly clear that all will not end well.
Always Shine is at its best when it focuses on the two women and their relationship. Even as their exchanges become increasingly antagonistic, it is apparent that there is a connection between the two of them as the film in turn acknowledges the seriousness of female friendship.
However, the script veers off course as Levine’s screenplay focuses too much on the sniping between Anna and Beth instead of the deeper fractures in their relationship. Though Takal deftly portrays the catfights and shower scenes, they are still here. And as the story twists in its final act, Levine goes so far as writing a character in to have sex with Anna and plays the part himself. If this is supposed to be some kind of meta-commentary it is not handled with enough grace to be effective. Instead, it feels as if Always Shine has become the kind of film that it was attempting to critique.