Hollywood can be a cutthroat business that turns people against one another. That idea isn’t a particularly new one, but Sophia Takal’s Always Shine - a remarkably self-assured film from a second-time director - essays it beautifully, even if its conclusion muddies the picture.
Anna (Mackenzie Davis, lately of Black Mirror’s “San Junipero”) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald, of Masters of Sex) are two actresses and nominal best friends, heading out for a Big Sur retreat weekend after years of professional and personal competition. The idea, though not voiced out loud, is for the two to bury the hatchet and rediscover their friendship, but that proves harder than expected when it becomes obvious neither can leave their work - or jealousies - behind. Beth has been getting solid, regular work, culminating in an upcoming lead role in a “stupid” horror movie with “extensive” nudity she doesn’t really want to do, while Anna struggles to get cast in friends’ experimental shorts. It’s all fuel for the feud.
You ain’t seen seething, subterranean hatred like Always Shine's. The two lead characters constantly rub each other the wrong way, using subtle burns and backhanded compliments to get their hooks into one another. Almost every line drips with subtext of either jealousy, on Anna’s part, or guilt, on Beth’s. In conversation, the two actresses constantly compete to seem worse off than the other, one wallowing in self-loathing and the other impotently trying to make her feel better.
Both of Always Shine’s lead actors follow the title’s ironic advice, but it’s Mackenzie Davis who dominates the film. Granted, her role is the more showy of the two, one fuelled by rage at the world’s injustices, compared to FitzGerald’s subtler study in self-deprecation. Davis won an award for Best Performance at Monster Fest in Melbourne (where I saw the film), and she richly deserves it. Beth is the kind of audience-identification character that it hurts to identify with. Many people will likely find common ground in her plight, wherein she’s been passed over professionally and personally in favour of her friend. I’ve certainly struggled with that kind of jealousy before, and boy, I can tell you that Davis’ performance cut deep.
Takal’s precise direction shines just as brightly. A longtime mumblecore veteran, her film has none of the shaggy qualities associated with that genre. Opening with a pair of scenes that immediately hook the viewer, Always Shine regularly subverts its own filmmaking devices in pursuit of its themes. Takal’s camera hones in tight on her actors, obsessing over every jealous glance and faked emotion. For a film that spends considerable time discussing nudity, the film’s nude scenes - including the classics, showers and sex - are deliberately chaste, providing an in-text rebuttal to the often misogynistic way Hollywood shoots women. Through focusing on performance and occasionally flashing to vague images of violence, the tension builds to an almost unbearable level by the start of the third act.
Unfortunately, that third act all but undoes the work of the first two. It’s no accident that the two lead characters look somewhat alike, and the third act capitalises on that. What started as a two-hander character drama takes a jarring turn into surreal psychological thriller, robbing Davis of a co-star to play against and killing the film’s pace. The story and theme fold in upon themselves, exploring an intriguing angle on the relationship between performance and self, as Anna takes on the role of Beth in real life. There’s merit in the psychological game Takal plays with Anna and Beth, but the abrupt gear-shift sucks away the atmosphere, and the final moments further confuse a story long since divorced of conventional sense.
The more I think about it, the more Always Shine might merit a second viewing. The bold choices on display in the third act may be discombobulating in the moment, but they display a vision that’s at least clear to the film’s director. Even without a conventionally satisfying ending, though, the two lead performances make Always Shine a fascinating entry into the pantheon of films about actors. Performances that explore the meaning of performance are hard to do, but Davis and FitzGerald pull them off with aplomb in a tense, thoughtful deconstruction of Hollywood's treatment of its young actresses.
Always Shine has screenings in select cities through December 2016.