“Have I seen you in anything?”
In more ways than one, Always Shine serves as 2016’s antidote to the masterful confection, sheer joy, and the powerful sense of regret in La La Land. One of those pictures celebrates cinema and the ambition required to make it in Hollywood; the other lambastes the objectification of female performers by men in positions of authority. I’m sure the poster for this film clues you into which category it belongs. And if you take the time to dissect the artful one-sheet after watching the movie you’ll understand its composition. Jealously can drive us to rip the pages from a book, a story, a person and try to carry them as if they were our own. Always Shine paints its feud and pursuit of a superimposed personal image with great authority and execution, digging deep into the psychology of envy and self-denigration along the way.
In a revealing opening, we’re separately introduced to two friends. We first meet Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) during a coy audition for another stupid horror film, interrupted by men off camera who remind her that the role features extensive nudity. Playing a scantily clad scream queen and starring in beer commercials have given her mild financial success without any artistic satisfaction. Conversely, Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is introduced as a confrontational personality. We think she’s auditioning for a part as well – the shots are framed similarly – until it cuts and we see that she’s delivering an off-script and real dressing-down of an auto mechanic. Beth is on a tempered high; Anna’s at a frustrated bottom. Their upcoming weekend girls trip out to a cabin feels ominous, looming, even threatening.
Always Shine might be about two fair-skinned starlets in search of fame, but substitute in any other ethnicity or occupation and you’d still be left with a psychodrama chiefly concerned with achieving the so-called the status quo. By confining the two women to such close quarters, the picture builds to an inevitable butting of heads, allowing Beth’s soft-spoken demeanor to clash with Anna’s fierce insecurity. Neither woman wants exactly what they currently have. Beth sees Anna as pathetic while Anna sees Beth as vain. Both opinions are tragically oversimplified assumptions of previously close friends who are now mere acquaintances. I recently heard someone from a podcast say that, “comparison is the thief of joy.” The grim atmosphere here proves it true.
With a sharp, taut script from Lawrence Michael Levine, director Sophia Takal makes great use of the classical elements of horror films: uneven cuts, a dissonant score, two dueling and challenging performances from Davis and FitzGerald. However, Takal’s movie is less a horror film and more a study of the horrors of living, feeling disenfranchised and worthless and sleazy. It’s a dirty picture – which would make for quite the double billing with The Neon Demon – with a title that tells an important chapter in the story of the modern woman. Society expects women and coerces them to smile, to flirt, to Always Shine. Buff away at a gem long enough and you’re going to get a jagged little edge without any of the sheen.
“I know that I haven’t been the greatest friend.”
Rating: 4 out of 5