Tribeca Review: ‘Always Shine’ is Masterful

It’s been fifteen years since Mulholland Dr. came out, shocking and confusing cinema-goers with its bizarre worldview. In spite of this extended length of time, it’s been understandably difficult for any other movie to capture that experience. That is, until Always Shine. 

Always Shine is not a remake or even a retread. It takes the tone of Mulholland Dr., an eerie, unsettling one that it then uses to explore its own story. We follow Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald), two actors and best friends who take a trip to a secluded cabin for a weekend away.

First and foremost, Always Shine is a battle of egos. Beth has a moderately successful acting career, but Anna is struggling. In fact, Beth seems to succeed in almost every respect where her friend flounders. Beth is gentler, see, a more modest beast, and Fitzgerald plays her as bendable. There’s something else underneath, though, a certain rage that seems to be forever tempered, but only just.

Anna, on the other hand, is a wild horse. She’s bold, adventurous, and a hard-ass. Davis plays her as a charming but insecure figure, someone who’s brazenly confident but regrets every choice she makes. The performance is explosive, but it’s not showy. She’s playing a character, not a caricature. The character she’s playing just happens to be a loud one.

The tonal balance here is remarkable. It’s a tense film, one premised almost entirely on the buildup to an eventual explosion. At the same time, though, Always Shine is aware of every beat it plays. Sometimes its tension is broken unexpectedly by moments of levity. On other occasions, director Sophia Takal seems to be poking fun at the idea of the psychological thriller as a genre.

Takal’s direction reveals mastery, though. She is always aware of how her decisions affect an audience, and she uses a deft visual style to keep us wrapped around her finger. There’s a reading of this movie as parody, and another that suggests complete seriousness, and I’m eager to hear both. Ambiguity is baked into this film, and it’s intentional.

Always Shine is about two women at war, sure, but it’s also very keenly aware of perception. It’s about the way sexism chooses to manifest itself today. It would appear as though Beth is more appealing to those around her because of her fragility. She isn’t weak, per se, but she wants the world to see her that way. Even in 2016, women are still susceptible to the whims of the men that surround them, as two key shots near the film’s opening reveal.

This film flies by. There are no real pauses, no moments wasted by Takal in her attempt to grip her audience and never let go. She finds good partners in both Fitzgerald and Davis, two TV actresses who have just shown the world exactly what they’re capable of.

Always Shine is a complete success. It’s a story of women being suppressed, one that refuses to let the men responsible off easy. It’s a thriller too, to be sure. Always Shine lives for the tension it creates, and it pervades every scene and both central performances. Perfectly paced, deftly directed, and incredibly well-acted, Always Shine is damn near a masterpiece. None of the names involved are big stars. Instead, each bit contributes to a larger whole. The film gets to be the star, and thank goodness for that.

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