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A good psychological drama knows best to keep all its cards on the table but keep them moving so we aren’t sure which are in play. And the real masters of this genre make the viewer feel as if cards weren’t even the game being played. With Always Shine, the game is a struggle for identity, a fallacy in the unjust world it exists within. We are sure there is a mystery to solve, but in fact, end up as part of the riddle.
Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) both work as actors, though Beth has the more commercial success. She’s working in TV doing commercials and in the movies doing exploitive films that require lots of nudity. It’s not anything she is comfortable with but it pays the bills and she aspires for better. Anna on the other hand, works for no pay in arthouse and experimental films. The two are on different paths but are connected by their passion for the work though share common stories of rampant sexism. Yet there is tension between them, a simmering layer of jealously that fuels an ever-present feeling of resentment. And then much worse.
Directed by Sophia Takal, who has spent years as an actor, she steps behind the camera for the second time and creates an unnerving, cerebral chiller that is as much about its atmosphere as it is about the polysemous story. Drawing upon films like Brian DePalma‘s Body Double and David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive, Takal does much to remind of us of them and others that have influenced her, and with astonishing confidence, challenges the viewer to look deeper. Who are these women? Why are they here? What do we feel when they stare directly at us?
Films about the craft of acting are, unlike most movies that center on a profession, often difficult to identify with, the people both in front of and behind the camera having a more invested calling to the story perhaps. Always Shine, whose title alone is a passive aggressive dig at female societal expectations, doesn’t skirt around the premise that what we are seeing is a contest for dominance. Beth and Anna are women wedged into constrictive roles, seen and made to be things that have come to define the female actor, and each have allowed it to shape what they have become.
This is established early in two seismic moments when we see what appears to be similar experiences. The first is has Beth auditioning for a part in a horror film. The camera keeps her face centered on screen and she reads the lines with great emotion, pleading with an unseen man to let her live, suggesting that he could do what he wants to her, including kissing her mouth or touching her body. She fidgets with the strap of her top and then steps out of character to ask the still unseen men in casting if she should stop. They in turn only want to make sure she is clear about the abundant nudity the film will employ. There is no word as to her effectiveness.
Then we see Anna in the same framing device, accusing an unseen mechanic of fraud, and since it is filmed entirely the same as the previous sequence, we are naturally sure it is a similar circumstance. In both scenes, the camera eventually shifts to a wide angle side shot that reveals indeed, Beth is acting and Anna is arguing. It’s a bit of trickery that will be a signature of the film going forward and work to keep us constantly guessing.
Both Davis and FitzGerald are extraordinary. Davis has a rawness to her performance, a satirical, scathing bite about her that works all the more so in opposition to Fitzgerald, who plays timid and overwhelmed, a woman always admonishing her successes and seemingly ready to cower into the shadows. Yet both are not what they seem, with one devastating moment as a standout, when an older man attempts to pick up one of the girls. The moment ends in a tragic image that has us questioning once again, just what exactly was it we saw.
This is the film’s greatest strength, after the performances. Takal allows her style to paint much of the picture’s context, breaking moments with horror-esque edits and uncomfortable, discordant strings, flashing jarring images (and even a clapboard) on screen. It can truly be unsettling, and yet utterly fascinating. This is not a scary movie in the conventional sense, but is a work of great horror. Debating what you see as the film ends will be the best reason yet to watch.
Director: Sophia Takal
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine
Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine