There are plenty of horror movies about women in danger. But few capture the unique danger of being a woman as distinctly and sharply as Sophia Takal’s Always Shine. Centering on the tale of two actresses whose girls-only weekend away turns grim, her buzzed about thriller explores the patriarchal trap that pits women against each other. And it does so in a suspenseful and surreal way that’s sure to make your heart race.
Always Shine opens on a passage from Secrets of Poise, Personality and Model Beauty, a 1961 etiquette book for women:
“It’s a woman’s birthright to be attractive and charming. In a sense, it is her duty…She is a bowl of flowers on the table of life.”(Shocker: it was penned by a man.)
Reading this quote, my teeth clenched. The blood throbbed behind my eyes. Takal had me right where she wanted me, enraged at this “wilting flower” role that the patriarchy would prefer us ladies play. Then in a suffocating close-up, she introduces Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), a pretty blonde whose eyes tremble with tears as she begs an unseen man, “Please don’t kill me. I’ll do whatever you want. Do you want to kiss me?”
My stomach lurched. Always Shine seemed to be kicking off with the pivotal moment of so much horror, when the girl-in-peril is reduced to tears and sexual bargaining to earn her survival. But this is a fierce feint. The bored voice of three unseen men soon make clear this is no hellscape of horror, just a Hollywood casting session, the kind where an actress is ogled and told repeatedly that it’s key to the role that she be very, very naked and submissive. The purposefully galling scene reminded me of this video of real actresses facing actual and mind-meltingly sexist casting copy:
But Beth’s not mad about this crass condescension and objectification. She’s exhausted, worn down for being more valued for her tits than her talents. Cut to her best friend and fuming foil Anna (Mackenzie Davis), shot in a similar constricting close-up as she appears to audition for a “sassy” bitch role. Smirking and headstrong, she demands an unseen male auto mechanic treat her with respect as he smugly reports her car repairs will be an extra $300. But this time Takal pulls back and shows us this is no audition. This is Anna’s real life, where she’s told to her face that he’d have done right by her, “if you were a touch more ladylike.”
Angry and broke, Anna is giddy over working for free in experimental short films just to get something for her reel. Meanwhile, Beth is on the rise thanks to schlocky slashers that embarrass her.
Both are deeply jealous, deeply unhappy. Anna envies Beth’s success; Beth covets Anna’s talents. Their friendship is already on the rocks as they decide to go to an isolated Big Sur cabin for the weekend. Plagued by professional jealousy and spotty cell phone reception, the two begin to pick at each other. Passive aggressive omissions about job ops and agent introductions sprout to brutal barbs, like Anna asking Beth if all the nude scenes she’s done don’t make her “feel like a whore.” Their incisive war of words feels so disturbingly raw and real, you might instinctively look away as if you’ve been too long eavesdropping on a personal, illicit moment. These tensions build to a fevered pitch that throws the second half of the film into a mind-bending and oddly exhilarating free fall.
Takal’s moody storytelling and enveloping caustic atmosphere has been earning her praise and comparisons to Brian De Palma and David Lynch. Meanwhile, Davis has won the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature honor for her work here. Those who found her funny or winsome in That Awkward Moment and The Martian will get to see what Davis can do with a truly meaty role, and will be awed. FitzGerald’s part is less showy. But she is Davis’s true match and perfect partner, tumbling with her blow for blow as Lawrence Michael Levine’s smart script turns their good girl/bad girl dynamic on its head.
In Takal’s hands, this frenemies premise becomes something richly subversive, deliciously wicked, dangerously sexy, and uniquely thrilling. But also, it feels distinctly female, setting Takal’s thriller apart from the voyeuristic tone of Lynch or De Palma’s. Always Shine gives its heroines the respect they crave. Though beautiful and sometimes naked (either in shower scenes or love scenes), neither Anna nor Beth are ogled by Takal’s lens. Furthermore, Takal’s editing mirrors their mounting panic, intercutting moments of mundane lovemaking or casual chatting with frames of dark landscapes and bursts of screams.
All this makes for an experience that is seductive, slippery, and sensational. But also it is the all-too-rare film that feels like a woman in panic. In this way, Always Shine reminds me of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Not to say they’re the same level of scary or even similar in their sub-genre. More that each provides a woman’s tale of tragedy and terror so fully that you can fall into it full-bodied and feel it spark goosebumps and heartache as if their pain and fear were truly your own.
In short, Always Shine is a true treasure of Tribeca 2016, and possibly one of the best films of the year.