'Always Shine': Tribeca Review
Actor Sophia Takal directs a psychological thriller about two aspiring actresses.
In her second feature as director, prolific indie actress Sophia Takal uses a world she presumably knows well — of aspiring female thesps who must always rank their own talent and desirability against others in their age group while the promising-newcomer expiration date approaches — as the starting point for a thriller whose stylistic flourishes betray ambitions beyond milking genre auds for an easy buck. Strong performances propel a movie that wears its influences (De Palma, Lynch) on its sleeve without feeling like a copycat.
It's stronger in both aesthetic and commercial terms than Joe Swanberg's 24 Exposures, the 2013 stalker pic that co-starred Takal and, one suspects, provided material for her to play against here. There, the director took every opportunity to get naked women onscreen; here, Takal's camera self-consciously keeps breasts and butts out of the frame, even when filming showers. The first conversation Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) has here is with filmmakers who want to make sure she's prepared for the "extensive" nudity required for a role she's trying to get; later, when she discusses the part with Anna (Mackenzie Davis), the latter is quick to ask, "do you have to take your clothes off?" The intertwining of talent and sexual commodification is never far from these characters' minds.
Beth's career is starting to take off, while Anna is still hungry enough to do avant-garde shorts for no pay. So while the longtime friends hope the trip they've planned to Big Sur will offer quality catch-up time, viewers will be unsurprised to see the scene poisoned by suppressed resentment. Beth is sensitive enough to want to downplay her success, but that doesn't keep Anna from feeling inferior, especially after the two go out for drinks and a man Anna is interested in asks Beth out instead.
The two women argue, split up for a while, and as Beth returns to their rented house, the film's score and anxious camerawork prime us to expect a boogeyman to materialize from the darkness. Something else happens.
Exactly what happens, one shouldn't say here even if it were entirely explicable. The movie, which has been dropping ominous little shock-edits into the action for some time, erupts briefly, even showing us a scene's camera slate as something transformational happens to the two women. From here on, it won't be clear which character is which or even if both are still alive. What's clear is that there's some opportunity for learning if the grass really is greener in another's person's life. Judging from the action as Takal envisions it, getting to wear another person's skin is no guarantee you'll leave your deep-seated discomfort behind.
Production company: Visit Films
Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alexander Koch, Jane Adams
Director: Sophia Takal
Screenwriter: Lawrence Michael Levine
Producers: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Pierce Varous
Executive producers: Marilyn White, Todd Remis
Director of photography: Mark Schwartzbard
Production designer, Costume designer: Lanie Faith Marie Overton
Editor: Zach Clark
Composer: Michael Montes
Casting directors: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (US Narrative Competition)
Sales: Ryan Kampe, Visit Films