Sophia Takal’s Always Shine, a chronicle of the increasingly fraying bonds between two actresses, deals with Hollywood strivers, but unlike Chris Prynoski Nerdland, it’s more interested in its characters’ psychologies than in scoring easy satirical points. Not that Takal’s film is any less critical of its main characters, Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), both best friends who find their affection for each other severely tested when they decide to spend a weekend out in Big Sur. Alex Ross Perry mined a similar scenario in Queen of Earth for eerie psychological menace, but Takal isn’t merely interested in crafting a mood piece.
There are hints during the film’s first half of the more surreal turn of events to follow: sudden montages of screams and landscapes intercut between regular dialogue scenes; Michael Montes’s foreboding atonal score. Mostly, though, this first half is a study of these two contrasting characters, with Anna tougher than the waif-like Beth. And yet, Beth has progressed farther along in her career than Anna—an impression that fills Anna with a buried resentment that gradually sprouts into the open, most electrifyingly in an impromptu script read-through between the two in which Anna shows a bit too much zeal in her attempt to show Beth how to be assertive for a horror-movie role.
But Beth isn’t entirely innocent. After all, Beth and Anna hadn’t seen each other for two months before this weekend getaway, the former seemingly too busy with her recent success to keep up with her supposed best friend. Furthermore, we later find out that Beth never got around to sending her agent Anna’s audition tape—a move that suggests more of a competitive streak than her wallflower-like demeanor lets on.
All of this tension comes to a head midway through in a twist that offers Anna an opportunity to temporarily try to be Beth—in essence trying out a new role, one that conforms more closely to conventional notions of femininity. This is the point where viewers are bound to think of Persona, but Takal is less interested in Ingmar Bergman’s brand of heavy philosophical inquiry than in horror-movie-like tension, with Beth popping up as a kind of specter to remind Anna of her transgressions. It all climaxes in a literal wrestling with the self that suggests a character finally grasping her own limits as an actress.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.