“Always Shine” screens at 10:30 p.m. Friday night at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1208 W. Dayton St. as part of the Directress Film Festival. FREE.
And you thought Emma Stone’s auditions in “La La Land” were rough. In the opening scene of Sophie Takal’s “Always Shine,” an actress named Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is auditioning for a sexually humiliating part in a lousy horror movie, sobbing as she offers an unseen killer her body in exchange for sparing her life. We hear the producers leering off-camera as she debases herself, chortling as she all but strips in front of them to get the part.
Then we see what’s shot like another audition, this time an actress named Anna (Mackenzie Davis) seeming to audition for the part of a pissed-off customer at an auto repair shop. Only, when the scene ends, we realize that she’s not auditioning for role — she really is at an auto shop, really is pissed off.
The pairing of those two scenes is key. “Always Shine” comes off in many ways like a brutal commentary on Hollywood sexism, on the way the industry uses and disposes of women. And that’s part of it. But, ultimately, “Always Shine” is about the way society in general looks at women, how they are often forced to perform roles for men in certain ways — to play submissive, or flirty, or the “cool girl” — in order to be seen and heard.
Takal’s previous film was the fizzy mystery comedy “Wild Canaries,” also written by her partner Lawrence Michael Levine. “Always Shine” is a jaggedly sharp turn in a different direction, a horror thriller that builds to a fever pitch and then deconstructs itself before our eyes.
Anna and Beth are longtime friends, but Hollywood has tested that friendship. Anna’s string of bad horror movies has given her some success, enough so that someone will occasionally recognize her in a coffee shop. But she isn’t getting any better roles, or even roles that don’t require her to take off her clothes. In a clever bit of meta-filmmaking, Takal shoots Anna using the visual language of cheesy softcore movies, watching from behind as she slowly takes off her negligee, or leering around a corner as she’s taking a shower, the frame keeping things firmly PG-13.
Beth, meanwhile, has had a harder time in Hollywood. Her refusal to take those roles Anna will, coupled with her abrasive and forthright manner, has cost her big-time in a male-dominated industry. She’s frustrated and angry with her career.
The two friends decide to reconnect by heading up to Beth’s parents’ cabin in Big Sur for the weekend — and, by the way, from “Queen of Earth” to “Joshy,” is it EVER a good idea for friends in an indie film to try to reconnect by going to a remote cabin?
Along the way, the tensions between the two women — Beth’s belittling jealousy at Anna’s career, Anna’s unease at Beth’s rage — start to wear on each other. And Takal starts splicing in subliminal images of violence — flash forwards, maybe, or dream sequences? — which suggests this weekend is going to come to a horrific end.
The two actresses are wonderful in such meaty, complex roles, charting the subtle power plays going on beneath the surface. Davis captures both the fury and the insecurity in Beth, how she realizes her aggression may be her undoing but can’t pull back. And FitzGerald’s performance as Anna is a sly one — we come to realize that she’s not the nice-girl victim she appears to be, but can play the role very effectively to get what she wants.
Viewers will have a field day arguing what happens in the last half hour of the movie, in which Beth starts taking on the mannerisms of Anna like a modern-day “Single White Female” — Takal even recreates those earlier softcore shots, now with Beth. But the conversation will likely turn to the deeper themes of the movie — why society forces women to be so competitive with each other, and why the rest of us watch.