Always Shine (2016, dir. Sophia Takal)
Two friends, Beth and Anna, are headed to Big Sur for a weekend getaway. Both women are actresses in Los Angeles with a big difference: Beth keeps booking bigger and bigger roles while Anna is passed over regularly. Anna believes this is rooted in their personal demeanors. Beth is perfect for the sexy but non-threatening female roles. Anna is “aggressive” by simply being very clear and direct about what she wants. Over the course of this weekend the friendship between these women will be strained to the breaking point with horrific consequences.
It’s no surprise that Always Shine is thematically about women existing in male dominated spaces. Our main characters are archetypal depictions of women in cinema, or in Anna’s case women that are marginalized in cinema. Director Takal shows a ton of skill in layering that theme under the story of this friendship and the psychological breakdown of one character. What could have been didactic and ultimately turned into a philosophical abstraction ends up being a visually engaging psychological thriller that isn’t exploitative.
The challenge in a film like Always Shine is making sure the audience doesn’t view one character as the bad one and the other good one. Beth is your traditional Final Girl and the film opens with her auditioning for the role of such a character in a horror movie. The producers inform her that the role will have “extensive nudity” and Beth is unaware of this fact, her agent didn’t tell her of that detail. Our introduction to Anna is a direct to camera monologue when she picks up her car from the mechanic. A repair was made without her consent and she unloads. Both of these scenes set up how these women are perceived by the men they interact with, but they are also subverted for the rest of the film. In particular as we get to know Anna better, we learn she is not a sweet, kind person. In many ways, she is playing a role to her own advantage.
Mackenzie Davis’ performance as Anna is the core of the film and, like in everything she appears in, she knocks it out of the park. It’s likely Davis experienced the struggles as she was developing her career and likely faces the problem of being offered roles that would force her to take on this behavior that is so antithetical to who she is. There are a number of compelling character scenes between she and Caitlin Fitzgerald who plays Beth that are beyond just awkward but painful. One scene has Anna learning about Beth’s casting as the lead in the horror film from the opening. Anna pushes to do a read through with a hesitant Beth and the scenes plays out like a competition or challenge. Anna is adamant that she’ll show Beth her prowess. The film is intelligent enough to not overtly talk about male perceptions shaping these women, but the subtext is there, buried beneath all the tension.
The structures and the themes of identity working in the film reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. In that movie, the traditional macho archetype meets a counterculture sexually liberated almost sorcerer and their persona’s begin to meld and split. Always Shine leaves the final outcome up to the viewer. We see police. We see an ambulance. But one character’s fate is left in question. Will she disappear into the woods, invisible or will she step out and make herself heard?