[Note: This is a re-post of our review from the AFI Film Festival; Always Shine expands from NYC to select theaters on December 2]
Women who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown is delicious film genre of its own, but most of these films—brilliant as they are—have come from the vantage point of a male director. Running mascara, quivering lips, friendships turning into jealousy and the merging of sensibilities with another woman feature heavily in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, John Cassavettes’ Opening Night, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, and the list goes on.
Sophia Takal‘s Always Shine isn’t only unique because the male gaze has been removed, but her attention to the moments when women are asked to be composed a specific way frames this femme breakdown film in an entirely new and exciting way. Shine stars Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) as actresses and best friends, whom we meet at that exact moment where jealousy of another’s success can blur the line between being a friend and being an enemy.
FitzGerald is in the powerful position, starring in a few trashy slasher movies, while Davis is still taking free work in short films. They venture to a secluded forest town for yet another nudie horror film shoot. After seeing a man move away from her flirtation to her friend instead, Davis’ Anna is on the deck vigorously exercising the next morning (never has a thrust exercise looked so threatening). Anna challenges FirtzGerald’s Beth to do a reading of the leading role in a “horrible” script about rock trolls. Anna’s approach to the scene is more fierce and dismissive and Beth’s approach is more docile, more of a “wilted flower”. Takal lets us decide if FitzGerald’s Beth is more of a victim because she routinely plays victims, or if Davis’ Anna is actually that threatening.
There are repeated jump cuts in Shine, hinting at a night where something goes terribly and violently awry. With these quick insertions of a violent struggle and the opening credits of sex and doom a special mention goes to the film’s editor, Zach Clark,—himself a filmmaker (check out this year’s quirky fun Little Sister)—for imbuing a trippy sensation of a bad moon rising within Beth and Anna’s increasingly not-so-friendly friendship.
Most excitingly, Takal frames her stars in numerous audition closeups, whether they’re actually auditioning or just interacting with a stranger in a car garage. In a great double introduction scene, Takal shows Beth and Anna in completely different situations, but acting nonetheless. Always Shine suggests that professional women have to always be on, or they will receive notes/insults about how their performance is lacking in that moment (from not “lady-like” to more demeaning insults).
This framing device also works well in sexual situations where we’re trained to anticipate nudity, but it is never shown. Neither is running mascara, actually. There are tears in Always Shine, but the emotion is usually in private. These women are always super composed around each other—always performing—and thus more skeptical of one another. And Always Shine is similarly composed: supremely confident.
Takal’s second feature shows very few cracks or vulnerabilities. If there’s a minor complaint, it’s that it feels both lean in story and overlong for the subject. But that’s perhaps an additive effect of Clark’s editing, which vacillates from quick horror genre collages to lengthier uninterrupted scenes. Nonetheless, Always Shine is performed with firehouse ping-pong precision by Davis and FitzGerald and Takal shows immense talent; all three are certainly women to watch going forward. In short, Always Shine shines.