When Sophia Takal started shooting Always Shine, Lawrence Michael Levine’s script represented a smart, sizzling flambé of abusive gender norms and twisted loyalty. Now, after watching society react to a Trump presidency these last few weeks, Levine’s script has morphed into something so much bigger (benefitting from a post-election release).
Takal helms a satire and warning about how women are painted into a wholesome, submissive corner that’s doubled in relevancy since grabby allegations and demeaning propaganda. As John Robert Powers’ opening quote proclaims, “it’s a women’s birthright to be attractive and charming,” which he insists is her “duty.” Then he likens women to a bowl of flowers sitting on the “table of life,” appropriating women to nothing but decorations for men to flaunt and control. Beautiful stuff, right? Yeah, that’s why we need Always Shine more than ever right now.
Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) are two actress friends living in Los Angeles, both attempting to become the next big Hollywood star. Beth currently enjoys a comfortable pad, steady work and was recently included in a “hottest young stars” article published by some big-time magazine. Anna, meanwhile, is about to be homeless, would happily take an unpaid short gig and can’t even afford a $300 car repair.
Despite being at different stages in their career, the chums embark on a vacation to Big Sur for a little rest and relaxation – but tensions boil over when they can’t see eye to eye. As Beth complains about taking “stupid” roles, Anna laments about how her less “lady-like” demeanor is written off by intimidated men until both woman are at each other’s throats. So much for an uplifting retreat…
Now, when I say there’s “tension” between the two aspiring performers, I mean that Sophia Takal’s cut-throat competition enters fiery genre realms where looks alone can kill. Beth and Anna shoot dagger-sharp glares back and forth, establishing this uneasy, hypnotizing repertoire full of combative intensity. So steady does their rage build beneath heavy makeup, tugging at painful emotions that remain safely tucked under prim-and-proper surfaces.
These are two girls being swallowed by the same system for different reasons, yet instead of comforting one another, they’re turned into enemies, devalued and disillusioned. Contributing factors strike from all angles – taking nudity roles to stay relevant, shutting up in front of men, being grateful for mansplaining – but they’re all rooted in the same brand of gender discouragement. This is where Davis and FitzGerald pull their premium angst and aggravation from, which even in this fiery delivery is understated.
On the surface, Always Shine is a sleek companion-piece to Starry Eyes, where young girls deal with the consequences of stardom in a genre format. That’s what’s most obvious. Then, peeling back the layers, both Takal and Levine wave a flag of change as they put current male-dominated methodologies on blast. As Beth meekly becomes a star because she’s able to shut up and look pretty, Anna becomes disgusted.
A girl who speaks her mind and boasts tremendous talent is overlooked because she’s not a feminine icon, batting her eyes and playing coy when talking to male suitors. A backyard fire pit encounter highlights this tremendously unsettling notion, when a prospective love interest becomes rattled when Anna asks a few simple questions about his middle-of-nowhere boys retreat. Easily answerable queries are taken as assaults from a woman who “doesn’t know her place,” as a spotlight is shined on an unfortunate reality of today’s human hierarchy.
I could spend another 1,000 words talking about the devastating nature of suppressed female voices in today’s world, but Always Shine does enough to spin explosive truth-bombs out of greed and jealousy. While two women expose the utter ignorance of gender favoritism, a seductive rivalry is born. I’ve already alluded to the back-and-forth drama between “friends” who are better enemies. Their face-off is a decadent slice of salacious self-loathing, as hatred lashes out in the most destructive manner.
Anna and Beth suffer from a friendship torn, and their journey downward is one that digs in claws like flaying razors. Both actresses ooze desperation and humility, ripped apart by regret and situational acceptance. Other characters enter the fray – like Khan Baykal’s skeptical boyfriend and Lawrence Michael Levine’s new lover – but as both actresses would love to hear, the spotlight always shines on Beth and Anna (HEY-YO!) Their diabolical chemistry is nothing short of scrumptious, bringing home a 21st century horror story soaked in social importance. This is how women always feel, even if we’re too drunk on complacency to notice.
Always Shine is an important film for America right now. We need to address gender inequalities that are still rampantly enacted on a daily basis, and open honest channels that don’t stereotype a lady as some dolled-up object. You’d think these thoughts are witicisms of the past, but we just elected a president whose words have set gender relations back years and years. We need a film like Always Shine, whose fangs are flashed in the very first minutes.
Sophia Takal’s message is fearless, screaming out for the “nasty women” who feel so helpless in today’s world – but even more so, thriller elements drive home taught interpretations of larger, more terrifying metaphors. This is a glamorous, commanding and important watch, primed to corrupt audience minds for a multitude of passionate reasons – first and foremost of which is that Takal stages one damn fine free-thinking thriller.
In the year 2016, we need thrillers like Always Shine to remind us of the social horrors we're currently up against.