REVIEW: Always Shine [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 85 minutes | Release Date: November 25th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Oscilloscope
Director(s): Sophia Takal
Writer(s): Lawrence Michael Levine

“Don’t worry sweetheart. We’ll make sure you look beautiful.”

Here’s a tale of two women, one-time best friends currently turned strangers. Or is it a tale of two halves: a brash, no-nonsense attitude towards identity at risk of coming off obnoxious against a meekly, non-confrontational façade meant to keep relationships devoid of conflict? If it’s the second option, which half is real and which artificial? Does society’s archaic understanding of femininity force out-going women into self-induced silence? Couldn’t the idea that you have to be one way to fit in and succeed create a desire to consciously act out and purposefully rebel against the status quo? In some ways our public selves outside our minds will always be an act. We become what we need to survive and who we need to be happy. Life is performance.

So how do you retain a handle on your true self? How do you hold the artifice at bay to escape once the circumstances have concluded? At some point we all transform into the being we’ve found necessary, the version of ourselves that our mind sees as the answer to attaining our goals and living our lives. We like to believe we haven’t changed—that everyone else around us has—because accepting the truth is like a defeat. We don’t want to feel as though the world has beaten us, that we’ve conformed into a brand rather than an identity. Uniqueness remains the key component, but individuality is compromised. You’re too quiet so you embrace loud. You’re too uncontrollable so you embrace calm. Self-preservation rises as self-awareness falls.

It’s a delicate scale with the potential for extreme implosion and that’s pretty much what Sophia Takal‘s Always Shine documents through its ingenious duality. Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is a successful actress making money and swimming in scripts even if the work itself is less than satisfying intellectually and artistically. She smiles, coyly giggles, and quietly adjusts to become exactly what’s needed. Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is a struggling actress with an abundance of talent and yet no true work to quit her day-job. She smiles, snorts with warranted disdain, and refuses to let those trying to force her into their idea of a woman succeed. They’re opposite sides of a coin, two purposeful extremes meant to contrast enough for us to realize they’re exactly the same underneath.

Both are beautiful, opportunistic, jealous, and narcissistic in their own ways—which is to say they’re human. To look at the other is to conjure a memory of happier times with foggy details and to acknowledge the present is far less forgiving. One has no qualms ignoring the other’s heartfelt offer of support to flirt with a stranger and make her friend the third wheel. The other isn’t ashamed to believe her tiny bit of success makes her an expert on the industry to the point of consciously or unconsciously sabotaging the other’s chances of equaling her success. Friends or not, they share an occupation and therefore find themselves in combative roles. Excitement therefore comes across as fake, empathy as pity. Paranoia usurps trust as reality becomes meaningless.

Screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine nicely constructs his script in a way that the audience literally has no clue what reality is—I’d argue even after its end. We believe we have a handle for a good two-thirds of the runtime before he shatters it to expose the fractured sense of truth we all cling onto instead. Suddenly this story of two women does become two versions of one and yet not. How the characters act after this shift confuses us because it confuses them too. Looks prove meaningless as blonde hair and slight frames become interchangeable, attitudes and personas shining above obvious facial feature differences. Does it mean the other had it right? Or does it just confirm that you have been correct in your restraint from conformity?

The idea of self comes under fire as agreeability somehow stands out beyond passionate fire. The notion men like Vic (Michael Lowry) want excitement is thrown away as his apparent interest in a willing conversational partner is shone to be mere deflection for his desire in the quiet mouse. Levine and Takal place generalized gender archetypes onscreen in a way that proves their effectiveness as well as the hope to reject them. One woman is afforded the opportunity to become the other and experience the life she’s strived for without compromising only to discover how easily compromise achieves it. The contradiction that we can simultaneously hate someone for who they are while hating ourselves for not being them is real. Finding a middle ground will drive you insane.

The performances by Davis and FitzGerald perfectly encapsulate this duality as we witness how the lies they speak cannot hide their expressions. We see the pain beneath the words, “I’m fine.” We see the jealousy behind the words, “I’m so happy for you.” Takal has taken Levine’s script and made it into a living embodiment of every woman’s struggle to traverse a prejudiced world without succumbing to its damaging perception of right and wrong. She introduces both women against a solid background, the situations at once real life and screen test opposite a patronizing male using “sweetheart” as code for unearned superiority. One takes it and the other doesn’t. Is the first weak and the second strong? Or is the first ladylike and the second a bitch?

It’s an unsettling juxtaposition, especially for those who automatically find the latter impression coming to the forefront. That’s the point. Takal embraces this ability to be unsettling with weird formal transitions of staccato screams and quick frames out-of-place and time. Sometimes dialogue slows down to a deep timbre; sometimes it sounds as though it’s going in reverse. We see clapboards flittering across the screen in moments of apparent reality and find ourselves unable to separate the art form from the art. Just when we attempt to decipher whether we’ve shifted into a nightmarish convergence or flip, Takal reminds us how everything is fake. The very concept of “reality” is exposed as subjective at best. Your experience of moments is dictated by who you are. But are you yourself?

courtesy of Oscilloscope

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