Shot in Southern California and set in a culture of fledgling film-industry types, Sophia Takal’s Always Shine is also a film that feels acutely like it was manufactured in a development office on La Cienega Boulevard. It’s Queen of Earth meets Mulholland Drive, Passion with a dash of Persona, The Neon Demon in the atmospheric key of Martha, Marcy, May Marlene. It won’t take a cinephile to recognize these touch points, and that probably wouldn’t bother Takal, who makes sure to signal on numerous occasions—through shots of camera lenses, glimpses of electronic slates, and direct-to-camera addresses—that Always Shine isn’t just an entertainment product with echoes of other films, but a narrative about the deforming, cannibalistic project of Hollywood.
Blond actresses Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) are this particular story’s yin and yang—that is, if you regard them as different women at all, as the film partakes of the by-now-customary plot wrinkle that they may in fact be split vestiges of the same cracked psychology. Takal suggests as much in Always Shine’s second-half paradigm shift, which finds Davis and Fitzgerald suddenly swapping roles to the tune of various dread-inducing backward-piano effects, but equally leaves open the possibility that the battle of wills that plays out between the friends at a Big Sur getaway—so as to halt their growing personal distance—might be one of their nightmares incarnate. The latter angle is teased by Takal’s disorienting treatment of the pair’s commute from L.A. to Big Sur along the Pacific Coast Highway, which plays as a portentous fog of stutter-frame edits and small talk torqued past legibility.
Once Anna and Beth arrive at their chic coastal cabin, tensions and passive-aggressions mount quickly, and the gulf between the women’s personalities becomes apparent. Beth is the rising success, with a string of lucrative advertising gigs to her name and growing interest from Hollywood producers, while Anna is the jealous hopeful with a career stuck in neutral, her only existing work offer being a part in an acquaintance’s low-budget experimental short. The irony here is that Anna is the much bolder personality, as well as the more gifted performer; Beth, more conventionally pretty than her friend, gets by on her bashful presence alone, which attracts the prurient attentions of the movie business’s male predators. (In the film’s opening audition scene, Beth makes Takal’s not-exactly-groundbreaking point efficiently, with a chorus of disembodied voices confirming their expectations for nudity.)
The film’s portrait of the pressures and pains—self-inflicted and otherwise—of the acting world is fleshed out in several lengthy dialogues handled with commanding technique by Davis and Fitzgerald, with the former using relentless eye contact and an unwavering volume of delivery to convey Anna’s attempts at cracking Beth’s feigned humility. One scene, otherwise spoiled by its unapologetic resemblance to Mulholland Drive’s explosive audition scene, captures in increasingly intimate two-shot as Anna schools Beth on the sassy role she’s auditioning for in a schlocky horror production, a move that ferociously asserts Anna’s envy and superiority complex and points to the film’s interest in gut feelings barely disguised by the veil of performance.
Unlike Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, however, which digs at this authenticity-performance dialectic for two hours without ever undermining the unity of its characterizations, Always Shine redirects into garish phantasmagoria. Takal’s self-consciously clever structuring, which foregrounds the identity-shifting gimmickry even as it muddles our notions of Anna and Beth as independent beings, ultimately compromises the psychologically fraught work done by her actors. Cribbing largely from other filmmakers, Takal’s stylistic affectations—doom-laden cutaways to foggy Big Sur panoramas, skittering jump cuts, languid zooms that milk frictions between foreground and background, and a soundtrack of Ligeti-like dissonances—end up accumulating into a tangle of evasiveness, wherein the badge of self-awareness is held up as a safety net against claims of fraudulence.