‘Always Shine’
Director:
Sophia Takal
Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin Fitzgerald
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

“Always Shine” is a psychological thriller snuggly placed over a cutting feminist tract, like a comfy sweater. It opens with a quote about how it’s a woman’s “birthright” to be beautiful, as though to get the message out of the way. From there on out it speaks not through words but through action. And what things it says: that women are forced to conform to a paltry number of gender norms; that anyone who doesn’t pick a box is ignored, exiled or driven mad. Its ideas and themes could fill a pamphlet, but it communicates in the language of a sleek and brainy genre cinema. 

Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) are two friends, and two examples of what we allow women to be. Beth is a successful actress, though her success is the kind you put in quotation marks: She gets roles, she’s “having her moment,” but the work is beneath her. When we first meet her, she’s auditioning for what sounds like a trashy horror film that requires nudity (but the kind, the producers tell her, that will be flattering). Anna is also an actress, but not successful in any way. She can’t make her car payments and, though she’s nowhere near a designated ugly friend, when placed next to the more glamorous Beth, men will always go for Beth. She’s aggressive, argumentative and sometimes truly a bit too much, even to people on her side.

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The plot finds Beth and Anna on a much-needed getaway to a handsome house in Big Sur. There, things will get ugly. Not right away, or anytime soon. The director is Sophia Takal ("Green"), the latest from the world of micro-budgeted cinema to aim for some sort of crossover, though on indie terms. Last year saw “Listen Up Philip”’s Alex Ross Perry release “Queen of Earth,” also a psychological thriller, also filled with elegant and menacing slow pans and slower zooms, also focusing on two female friends, one of whom loses her mind. The two were made at the same time, and they differ in many key ways that render anything beyond superficial comparisons pointless.

Both do, however, keep their intimate indie cred intact. More upsetting than the shocking act that happens at the two-thirds mark, sending it into true head trip territory, is its sharply insightful depiction of friends whose closeness is by now a lie. Professional and romantic jealousies have tarnished whatever was once between them; there’s simply no way to coexist without addressing untold elephants in the room. Takal likes to play out scenes with few cuts, not to show off her filmmaking skills or those of her excellent actresses, but to create a sickening claustrophobia. They’re trapped together, and even moments of calm and closeness are fraught with tension. Anna has to contain her jealousy and anger at a world that has no use for her, while Beth has to sit there, feeling guilty, worrying she’s a thief who doesn’t deserve her modest success, flinching whenever her friend gets too in her face.

Frankly, “Always Shine” could be a bit less clear what it’s really about. Takal casually borrows from weirdo Altman (especially “3 Women” and “Images”), plus De Palma, with scrolling titles out of a Ken Russell movie and jarring mini-flash forwards, maybe lifted from “Easy Rider.” But she rarely gets a chance to go whole hog genre. The script, by Takal’s husband and frequent collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine — a man’s take on women handed over to female interpreters — is sometimes a little too on-point. It could stand to smudge some of its ideas a little bit, leave a bit more to interpretation. It practically writes the grad school paper for you. That doesn’t mean what it says doesn’t need to said, or that the way it says it doesn’t work the nerves as well as the mind.

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