Always Shine Caitlin FitzGerald

ALWAYS SHINE Review: An Indie Thriller You Want To Spend a Little More Time With

Monday, December 05, 2016 Rob Samuelson

Sometimes we hold onto things for longer than we should. These things can be small, like a childhood toy, or they can be big, like friendships that have soured beyond the point of repair. That’s the case for Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) in Always Shine, a new thriller from Sophia Takal that makes a trip to a family member’s cottage in California’s Big Sur into a place of boiling tension.

Photo credit: Always Shine/Facebook


Beth is on a fairly positive career trajectory in Hollywood. She’s starring in plenty of bad horror movies where she has to take off her clothes on camera (which she hates), but she’s going somewhere in life and she can see bigger and better things at the end of the tunnel. She can afford to pay for expensive-sounding drinks for her longtime best friend from home, Anna, who is much more of a struggling actor. She hungers for a role in an avant garde short film that won’t pay her, simply because it could potentially lead to more exposure for her. She is the superior actor to her friend, as demonstrated in a heated scene where they run lines for Beth’s upcoming starring role in a horrible-sounding horror flick involving Scandinavian myths about murderous rocks, but she is much less willing to play Hollywood games of flattery. She does not kiss any rings and she can’t stand that her supposed best friend uses her flattery skills to get ahead. Crucially, Anna is more upset that Beth does not use her own selling out to help Anna get roles or better representation.

This causes conflict, and it’s not pretty to watch these two people who have drifted so far apart try to pretend that everything is hunky dory. Anna is the confrontational sort, the type of person who chases what she wants with overzealous intensity. Beth is not like that at all. She’s more internalized, quieter, waiting for her spot to advance in her social and professional life, a (traitorous?) trait she puts to use when the two women strike up a conversation with a businessman with Hollywood connections at a local cocktail bar -- Anna’s into him romantically and Beth pretends to be totally uninterested until Anna heads to the restroom. Anna hates her for these subtle slights, which makes every extended pause of the camera on Anna’s fuming face wrought with terror. Takal wrings so much unstable fury from her lead actor’s round eyes. Davis fills those eyes with wetness that denotes a mixture of defeat, rage, and anxiety about the ever-growing likelihood that she will fail at her life’s ambition. She discusses how, once an actor hits 30 without “making it,” it’s game over for her dream. When those words come from the 29-year-old Davis’s mouth it takes on a little extra weight, even if the real-life Davis has had much more success than her character as evidenced by her spot in this movie.

The film runs into a little trouble with how it resolves the conflict between the two friends going through a rather tumultuous falling out. The first hour of Always Shine is a nuanced, slow build to a moment of human ugliness, and the last half hour’s fallout from that ugliness is just as conceptually fascinating that it leaves you wanting further exploration of those themes. Davis’s reaction to the dissolution of her character’s friendship is haunted and haunting. She stares distractedly off into space while at dinner tables and while attending a mountain rave. Takal and her cinematographer, Mark Schwartzbard, have a lot of fun with these moments, finding ways to isolate Davis in the frame even when she’s surrounded by people.

The problem is that the script, penned by Wild Canaries writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, doesn’t realize that Always Shine is something worth holding onto for a little while longer -- unlike its central friendship. The last 20 to 30 minutes feel like they could use a lot more meat on their bones. This sequence is economical, which is often commendable in stories of this nature, but it also lacks the pinpoint specificity that characterized the unraveling relationship earlier in the film. It is painted with broader strokes than the more finely detailed -- and enthralling -- earlier section. Taking more time to consider the nuances of Anna’s thoughts and actions would do the movie a world of good.

Still, Always Shine is a splendid coming out party for both Takal and Davis, who seems to be springboarding to the big screen from her role on AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire -- here she is a volcano, with the potential to have a long career in roles that are perhaps too hard-edged for someone like Jessica Chastain. Hollywood would do itself a disservice to ignore Takal’s talents behind the camera (she acts, too, just not in this movie), because the perspective she brings here is more frightening than typical thrillers with their external threats. Here you can see exactly how and why every decision is made, and that leads to serious cinematic anxiety -- the only fun kind of anxiety.

Director: Sophia Takal
Writer: Lawrence Michael Levine
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, Khan Baykal
Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of five
Available in limited release and on demand now

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