“Don’t you get tired of pretending to be so helpless?”
Sophia Takal taps into the inner conflict of a woman who doesn’t believe in the typical idea of what a woman is supposed to be. She takes up elements of jealousy, competition, hysteria and wraps them into an intense psychological thriller that soon becomes a meta-horror about the embarrassing state of how things work down the lane to being an acting success in the big-big world of Hollywood.
While there are conscious references to the works of Hitchcock and De Palma, Sophia Takal’s film can be best described as a virtual cross between Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, all the way setting up a right foot on its own. Takal’s film is a psychological thriller trapped inside a meta-slasher film, trapped inside a drama about women being wrongly conceived on the incredible canvas of the film industry. There’s also a little bit of the identity crises that goes down when jealousy and failure take the front seat in one’s life. The notion that Always Shine greatly presents is how a woman needs to be thin and beautiful and charming all at the same time. Where the actress side of a woman working in the film industry becomes too self-absorbed and self-conscious and all that comes out thereafter is just painful regret and vulnerability.
Always Shine opens with Beth looking at the camera asking someone not to kill her. Soon we realize that she is in an audition. We see the regret on her face as she has been feeling quite out of place for being typecast as a valiant, naked blonde in slasher films. Takal’s film then cuts into weird, almost hallucinating haunting shots of what seems to be a surreal trip down the lines of sex, betrayal, and death.
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) & Anna (Mackenzie Davis) are old mates. Both of them have been struggling in their respective skins, Anna, a little more than Beth. They have had a regressive attitude towards each other’s working structure. The film sees them deciding to take a trip to Big Sur in order to get the connection back in their friendship. But what seems like a weekend of boozing, chats, and regaining solitude in each other’s company soon turns into a havoc when the jealousy, hatred, and self-reflexive attitude oozes out and things start to peel off like dead skin.
Always Shine is an impressive indie film. It talks about femininity and how women are usually considered as props and objects and not judged on their talent on the screen. There are long shots of the back of both the central players in Takal’s film, but there is no sign of nudity even in the scenes that feature them taking a shower. This is a self-conscious decision that the director makes proving her point of strongly contradicting the opening quote of her film that reads: “It is a woman’s birthright to be attractive and charming. In a sense it is her duty…She is the bowl of flowers on the table of life.”
The third act of Sophia Takal’s film takes a topsy-turvy when the audience is thrown into a mix of ambiguity and doubt. Is the character being treated as a self-referential prop to prove a point that changing skins doesn’t promise a complete take-off from the inner demon? Is the film purposely trying to obnoxiously throw you into a slasher film that is trying to sound profound with its flashy edits and scintillating score? Or does the director actually manages to pull off an astounding and intense film about the way the misogynistic culture is not only tearing gender boundaries but is also tearing up the talented people from the inside? Where self-doubt, self-pity, and jealousy create a sense of claustrophobia even when the screen comes in different sizes? I prefer to believe in the later.
Anchored by one of the best performance of the year by Mackenzie Davis, Always Shine is an intense drama about female companionship and their struggle to survive inside a wall of a male dominated industry.