Synopsis: Best friends Anna and Beth take a weekend trip to Big Sur, but tensions mount and lead to something they never could’ve expected. (Source)
“She is the bowl of flowers at the table of life”, says the striking quote that opens Always Shine. The statement is a heady one, referring to a woman’s place in society and commenting on gender roles in a way that’s both complimentary and horrifyingly oppressive. This conflicting ideal of femininity is what drives Sophia Takal’s latest, a real knockout of a film that sinks its claws under our skin, then rips us to shreds in ways we don’t see coming. Undoubtedly one of the year’s best horror films, Takal doesn’t need monsters, otherworldly beings or ghosts to terrify, just a self-destructive, patriarchal society and liberal doses of female insecurity. Starting out as a self-aware commentary on how women are adored and ultimately discarded in Hollywood, the film is a disorienting head trip into jealousy and rage. Most of all, it allows women to be real and unguarded, illustrating an intimate portrait of two characters who are broken and tormented, and celebrating their imperfections through incredible performances by Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald.
Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) are best friends who have known each other for a long while. Each are rising movie stars, but at different points in their careers. Beth is the more established of the two, on the cusp of mainstream success with a larger body of work, while Anna is still paying her dues (she doesn’t even have an agent and is struggling to find the right roles). Together, the two decide to reconnect by taking a weekend trip to Big Sur. While staying in a secluded cabin, deep seated feelings begin to surface, revealing professional/personal rivalry and repressed jealousy. Soon enough, the women find themselves walking on eggshells amidst one another, with each encounter taking a darker route towards sinister implications. Whatever happens, it’s clear that after this retreat, neither woman will look at the other in the same way.
Saying too much about how the film plays out wouldn’t be fair, as it relies on a deconstruction of both our expectations and its characters – what makes it so satisfying, though, is how deftly it subverts genre norms and transforms every time we think we’ve got it figured out. Takal navigates each act with razor-sharp precision, drawing us deeper into her characters’ heads with an inventive mix of style and substance. Some of the film’s best moments are when she just allows her characters to talk, letting the camera linger at them indifferently as they unravel or bear their souls. Drawing us deeper into the psyche of her heroines, actions sometimes break the fourth wall, calling upon extreme close-ups, dissonant audio montages, reversed dialogue and swelling strings to transform the mundane into something more surreal. It all helps to make Takal’s film an intimate, inescapable portrait of psychological violence, pushing her characters to the breaking point with squeamish results. As Anna and Beth fracture and their narrative folds in on itself, the biggest twist may be that no one is more ruthless towards women than themselves.
Taking us through the film’s twisty jolts are stars Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald, who navigate the story’s ambiguity with ease. As Anna, Mackenzie Davis steals the show, gradually coming unglued, but also earning our sympathy. There is real pain and fire behind Mackenzie, with most of her performance coming from what she doesn’t say. In that way, it’s an internalized performance that finds deafening volume through restraint. As Beth, Caitlin FitzGerald shares much of the same self-doubt, but manifests it in different ways, opting to hold it in and compartmentalize. Because of this, her outer appearance and what she chooses to convey is a stark contrast to Davis, allowing her to create a facade as the stronger, more confident of the two. Together, the chemistry between both performers is electric, carrying the film on their backs almost exclusively and contrasting despite a lot of overlap. You can definitely view this as a performance piece, and these two bring their best to the table.
Always Shine fiercely makes the case that women are just as flawed, confused and imperfect as their male counterparts – and that it’s to be accepted instead of admonished. From the palpable atmosphere, to the confident style, you’ll swear that this is the spiritual successor to Bergman’s Persona, and that’s really the highest praise you could give it. No matter how you look at the film, as a psycho-drama that makes us feel the torment of its broken characters, or a thriller that doesn’t let up, this one truly shines.