Retreat Into Rage: "Always Shine" an incisive, confidently acted nightmare

Always Shine (2016)
85 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Antiquated gender norms and a suppressed female voice are enough to fume those trying to make a mark or just get noticed in the entertainment industry. Sometimes, they can take a psychological toll on someone. With the deliciously prickly, increasingly tense, confidently acted indie horror-drama “Always Shine,” director Sophia Takal (making her sophomore effort behind the camera) responds to such notions, along with the cutthroat competition among friends in the biz. Rather than standing on a soapbox as an on-the-nose statement, Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine (2015’s “Wild Canaries”), also her husband, articulate their themes and story with simmering control, blurred lines between friends and enemies or colleagues and rivals, and as much bitter honesty and composure-cracking as 2015’s startling woman-on-the-verge chamber piece “Queen of Earth.”

Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) are friends who haven’t been as close as they used to be. They are both Los Angeles-based actresses, albeit with different degrees of success, perhaps due to their night-and-day demeanors. One is soft, submissive and attention-getting, and the other is hard, vituperative and insecure. One keeps quiet and plays in to the male-topped hierarchy of just knowing her place, and the other isn’t afraid to speak her mind and break the system. A girls’ weekend at Anna’s aunt’s house in Big Sur is their plan to reconnect. While things start off calm, as the two catch up and reminisce, there is an underlying jealousy in Anna, who’s tense and often argumentative. Their time grows even more contentious, and passive-aggression soon erupts into genuine aggression.

The off-center tone of “Always Shine” is precisely set, as a primal female scream and the sounds of running in the woods shift imperceptibly into Beth crying, pleading for her life and asking what she needs to do to live. The single take reveals to be Beth in a casting call for a horror movie, which might as well be a reality since her voice is confined by what her agent thinks is best for her career, even if “extensive nudity” calls for the project at hand. (It should be noted that for a film with an actress character who has gotten nude in about ten consecutive horror films, there is no actual nudity to be found, even during shower and love scenes.) The juxtaposition of that is Anna in a heated argument about her refusal to pay an inflated bill at an auto-body shop. Like Beth’s first scene, Anna is speaking to the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall, with a blank wall behind her. As Anna raises her voice and begins to curse, the male voice in the room calls her the opposite of “lady-like,” and what seemingly began as an audition for Anna reveals itself to be an aggravating reality. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: A -