Always Shine (2016) is 3 Women (1977) meets The Player (1992).
It’s a brisk Hollywood satire which ponders the longevity of female friendship when it is, time and time again, sabotaged by an industry which treats women as throwaway commodities. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), the mind-bending, avant garde character study infatuated by the elasticity of one’s identity, Always Shine puts its attention onto a pair of young women and contemplates their similarities and disparities like a mad scientist dissecting a frog.
They are Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis), Hollywood hopefuls. Both in their 20s, the two, having been best friends for a number of years, are currently at their most relationally disjointed. Beth is starting her ascent to the top of Tinsel Town’s food chain, and Anna is still acting for free in pretentious short films.
Craving a getaway from their emotionally tumultuous lives, Beth plans a vacation in Big Sur, renting a cushy hideaway for her and Anna to unwind. But before Beth can so much as get in the car, it’s clear that this makeshift holiday is not going to be nearly as relaxing as she’d like it to be. Anna, evidently, resents her friend’s mounting success, and before long are we certain that her envy might prove to be lethal.
But the film doesn’t seem all that concerned with its thriller underpinnings, as the husband and wife filmmaking team behind it, Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal, are more fascinated by the exploitative way the film industry uses women and what effects routine manipulation can have on a person.
And that’s why the film works so well. Because it’s made with the understanding that so much of how these women perceive themselves is based on the desires of the men in their lives, it’s a satire coming from all directions. One moment, it’s a sorry tale of a race to the top gone wrong. The next, it’s a horror show circling around the aftereffects of betraying oneself for the sake of furthering a career. And in another, it’s a clinical study of the nature of identity, and how easily it can be outwardly morphed to please someone else. The film is remarkably cohesive for one that says so many things at once and clocks an economic 85 minutes.
But like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), to which it is obviously indebted, the enigmas that linger are only strong suits. It’s hard to discuss the movie without giving too much away. The story itself could be taken several ways, and the truth that every viewer will discern it differently enlivens it. No matter what angle you’re looking at it from, it’s brilliant — Levine and Takal have fabricated a profound Hollywood story. You want to watch it again to pick up on minuscule details you might have overlooked. It’s a cult classic in the making, and Davis and FitzGerald give increasingly unsettling performances.
Because it resembles so many other films, though — 3 Women, Persona, Mulholland Drive, and Queen of Earth (2015) all come to mind — Always Shine sometimes feels more like an homage than a singular work. But so much of what it does dawdles in the memory, remaining bewildering even as it gets washed away with the sands of time. I’m eager to see what Levine and Takal come up with next.