by Veronica Stone
A polished, yet experimental psychological thriller, Always Shine is the second feature film from acclaimed young director, Sophia Takal. This arthouse indie follows two actresses as they attempt to rekindle their strained friendship in the face of the jealousy and competition, so intrinsic in the film industry.
Young actresses, Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), are on different career paths. The former is a struggling actress whose strong personality is often interpreted as “aggressive” and “unladylike,” while the latter is a promising actress who has done her fair share of exploitative b-horror flicks, baring her breasts in the name of “stardom.” While neither of them are where they want to be career-wise, deep-seated jealousy, resentment, and tension rise throughout the film, to startling and unsettling results.
Always Shine examines how gender norms imprison women. Takal’s (pictured above) phenomenal direction and personal insight make this thriller narratively and aesthetically remarkable, delivering a smart film that is heavily aware of the tyrannical gaze enabled and perpetuated by the Hollywood factory.
What makes the film so compelling is Takal’s personal investment in its subject matter. Growing up, she struggled with society’s ideas of the “perfect woman” stating, “On the one hand, I despised the mainstream media that promoted such limited notions of womanhood; on the other, I longed to be a part of that culture.” This conflict is beautifully represented in the relationship between Anna and Beth who are two sides of the same coin. And as the film progresses, the struggle between the two women becomes uglier, yet all the more human and heartbreaking.
The slow zooms, elegant long takes, and subliminal flash cuts give Always Shine a slick and stylized look, heightening its tension and unnerving tone. As one review aptly observed, the film is “Persona meets The Shining meets Mulholland Drive meets Single White Female” (Screen Anarchy). With all of these references thrown around, it’s important to note that as a director, Takal’s vision is both, unique and refreshing in its ability to skillfully subvert the thriller genre’s tendency towards sexism and voyeurism (take Brian DePalma’s erotic thrillers for example).
While Always Shine incorporates stylistic tropes influenced by male directors (ex. Altman, DePalma, Cassavetes), Takal’s natural insight as an indie film actress, imbues the feature with a strong air of authenticity. Having made her successful directorial debut with the film, Green, her style has evolved from a handheld, minimal aesthetic to a slicker, genre referential film, filled with satire aimed at the convention and clichés that permeate the industry. Anna and Beth represent the extremes of femininity, or rather, its imposed conventions. Takal takes them out of the thinly-developed female stereotypes, which ultimately allows them to react to these restrictions. She impressively creates two female characters who outwardly demonstrate their fear, anger, and frustration.
The film’s effectively menacing tone can be attributed, in part, to a fantastic script penned by screenwriter and co-producer (as well as Takal’s husband) Lawrence Michael Levine. Its entrancing aesthetic is achieved by cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard’s striking widescreen compositions and slow camera movements, while editor Zack Clark’s razor sharp use of shock-cuts heightens the tension. Accompanied by Michael Monte’s eerie musical score, the film delivers an experience of creeping dread and gut-wrenching emotion.
Prior to Always Shine, Takal wrote, directed, and starred in the critically-acclaimed feature, Green, which won the SXSW Emerging Female Director award. However, Takal’s experience in the film industry is not limited to behind the camera. With appearances in Ti West’s V/H/S and Daniel Schechter’s Supporting Characters, she has established herself as an indie actress. She’s also produced and starred in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Wild Canaries and Gabi on the Roof in July, which she edited.
Sophia Takal is clearly an impressive talent. So, we can’t wait to see what’s next. And if you can’t wait to see Always Shine, be sure to click here for a list of screenings in your area.