Sophia Takal has a direct vision and it’s one that initially put me off when I left the theater. In your face and vibrant with mean spirited characters, the film doesn’t offer much in the way of emotional connection or substance but plenty in graceful style and big ideas. Difficulty connecting to the film had me frustrated while watching but looking back I have to wonder if that was the point. Where’s the fun in creating a movie that lets you off easy?
Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) and Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) star as two best friends who are traveling to Big Sur for a weekend getaway, but it’s not long before their friendship is tested. Both actresses, Beth has had a greater amount of success while Anna is struggling for parts. The two grapple with petty arguments and envy over the course of the weekend as they play with gender roles, the roles they’ve been offered to play, and the ones they’ve adopted in the real world. Chilly, destructive and bold faced about their message of what it means to be a woman in Hollywood, I can’t say I enjoyed Always Shine, but upon reflection I appreciate it greatly.
Davis is excellent as Anna, the angrier of the two who doesn’t allow anyone to screw her over while FitzGerald, who is serviceable, pales in comparison to the power Davis delivers with every line. It doesn’t help that her character is so thoroughly unlikable. Passive while secretly petty and manipulative, she plays the character with just enough insecurity that she doesn’t read as a flat out villain by the film’s end.
There are elements outside of Davis’s blistering performance that I found remarkable, ideas and motifs that charged through the more meandering dialogue as the film progressed. The jealousy each carries for one another and the patriarchal envy that’s derivative from the male notion of what it means to be an “appealing” woman for the male gaze. Beth’s demure nature and apathy might enrage Anna (and this similarly tempered writer), but those same attributes are what are defined as “lady like”*, especially compared to Anna’s brashness and aggressive behavior. Everything from Anna’s bright, orange lipstick to her icy blue eyes stands in contrast with Beth. While the sexist nature of their careers is mentioned in context of Beth’s opening audition where male voices from off screen condescend her, calling her sweetheart and saying her nude scenes will make her look beautiful. But the more complex discussions of sexism are involved in how Anna and Beth carry every day sexism with them. From complaining about being told to “calm down” and how no one says that to a man, to their competitive nature and how Anna looks at Beth with a mix of envy and disgust.
“Do you ever feel like a whore?” Anna asks Beth at one point and the bitterness, omnipresent societal pressure and history gives it a venomous edge.
The male gaze follows them to the point where we can see when they’re at their freest. The two women walk around each other in various degrees of undress without a care while Beth needs to cover herself from her boyfriend who she just slept with.
Takal’s eye for parallelism is a keen one, and she uses it to her advantage in later scenes in the third act, even if it’s the third act where the film begins to fall apart. Takal’s voice is present, a driving force of the film as the psychological mind games are escalated as the resentment and jealousy continue to build a blockade between the two former friends and their relationship. Had this just been a mountainside retreat, psychological character study, I would have walked away a much more satisfied viewer. However, some bizarre tone choices and a crucial decision turns the psychological drama into campier territory, taking away from the prior efforts.
I’ve warmed to the film since seeing it after I’ve let myself blow off some steam at just how strongly I’d detest Beth in real life. However, the film still feels as if it’s a little incomplete. From the jarring title credits to the sporadic utilization of smash cuts, the film needed to be cleaned up a bit before being shown as a final product.
Despite this, the gorgeous cinematography, the themes and Davis’s performance turns the film into a wildly intriguing, if not perfect, portrait of two women crumbling under pressure and the consequences that ensue.