Monday, January 9, 2017

Always Shine Review

"It's 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." - John Robert Powers

The opening frame of the film is that quote, and after doing literally no research in advance of watching Always Shine, I instantly wondered what I was in store for. 

A tremendous, unnerving, cold slice of a dark thriller with a whole lot to say, as it turns out.

The very next shot after the quote is a close-up of a screaming woman, begging for her life. Her name is Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), but don't be alarmed for she is only auditioning for a role in a film. The camera looms on her face and we are subjected to her being forced to react and stay composed as the men creating the picture speak of their expectations if she is to get the part. Extensive nudity is demanded, and if she isn't comfortable with that she better not waste their time. "Don't worry, sweatheart. We'll make sure you look beautiful.", says the disgustingly patronizing voice of one of the men. I cringed watching Beth try not to do the same.

Next is a close-up of Anna (Mackenzie Davis) seemingly also at an audition, demanding an explanation as to why a repair was done to her car without her permission. The camera lingers solely on her face much like it did with Beth, only this time instead of feeling objectified and horrified for the way the men are speaking to her, Anna won't be pushed around. When the camera finally pulls back, we see this isn't an audition but rather real life. Also an actress but minus the success, Anna pays only for the repairs she authorized, broke and struggling to make any income off of her passion.

Beth and Anna are best friends, although their relationship is clearly strained, quite possibly because of their similar career goals yet differing paths to meeting them thus far. They decide to go on a trip together to Big Sur, and on the way up Beth is recognized by a fan who requests a picture, handing Anna the camera to take it. We see the jealousy, the resentment that comes with success and failure between close friends, and it only adds fuel to the fire when Anna discovers a magazine featuring Beth in its Young Hollywood edition.

Between this film and the Black Mirror masterpiece of an episode "San Junipero", Mackenzie Davis went from not even on my radar to being at the top of any sort of people to watch list, playing the Anna role with perfection, with even just the most subtle facial expression and mannerism making a frame more uncomfortable yet I was never truly scared of her. In fact I was always empathetic, which I think was the intended goal of writer Lawrence Michael Levine and director Sophia Takal. Sure, some will find the ill-will towards her successful friend misguided but I don't think the character is meant to be torn down but rather the culture of the business itself, ironically the very one required in order to make a film like Always Shine happen in the first place. I was reminded of the themes of The Neon Demon while watching this movie, the criticism of the modeling industry and the way it pits young women against each other to the point that it almost feels abusive. I would imagine when it comes to getting their foot in the door, acting is quite similar.

Now that I am thinking about it, The Neon Demon and Always Shine will make one hell of a double feature. I will put that on my absolutely needs to happen list.

Davis isn't the only star here, with Caitlin FitzGerald playing off of her as the one finding success but doing so sheepishly, afraid of offending her friend to the point where her quiet nature and forced modesty are, ironically, offensive. It's expert casting on display, putting these two actresses on the screen together and allowing them to play characters that clash perfectly, essential to making Always Shine work. That, along with the incredible direction from Takal who clearly gets how to expertly build tension and utilize tone, are what elevates what could have been merely just another good film to greatness. There is one scene in particular in which Beth is on the phone with her boyfriend and the camera frantically follows her back and forth as she paces that will prove to be unforgettable. I was quite literally nervous the entire sequence, and even if we see the pay off coming, not knowing when proves to be plenty to make our skin crawl.

Always Shine is one of the best surprises of 2016, an absolute winner that was difficult to even get made due to working with such a tiny budget. The film required a Kickstarter campaign to gather the funds just to be able to finish post-production, and I am so glad it did. Sign me up to contribute the next time Sophia Takal needs a little help completing such an accomplished piece of cinema.


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