Nice girls play by the rules. They turn their shoulders inward and nibble on the ends of their slim fingers, nervous about all those difficult thoughts in their heads. And their hair is always perfect and feathery like a baby bird on a collector's plate. If this description sounds angry, it is. That inflammatory attitude hangs heavy in the air of Sophia Takal's Always Shine, a psychological thriller about the implosion of two women — the naughty one and the nice one — each of whom wishes desperately that she could be the other.
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is that perfect and prim baby bird. In the opening, she's framed in extreme close-up, a white background peeking out from behind her head. She's crying, baring her soul, telling someone off-screen that she'll "do anything" for them, even take off her clothes. That's when two men's voices ask her if she's cool to do nudity. The question throws Beth off her game, but she acquiesces — it's a screen test, and like the character she's auditioning to play, she'll do anything for a part. Beth doesn't ruffle feathers, especially those of men.
Beth's polar opposite and best frenemy is another actress, Anna (Mackenzie Davis), whose own extreme close-up monologue is furious and accusatory. But this time, when the camera pulls back, we see this is no film set. She's struggling to pay for her car repairs. Meanwhile, Beth is raking in money from beer commercials. Resentment smolders deep in Anna, as she smears layers of red lipstick on her lips like armor and picks up Beth for a getaway weekend in a secluded Big Sur house — with no cell service.
Takal takes cues from Robert Altman's masterpiece 3 Women, directing the camera to wander while two or more people are speaking, sometimes slowly pushing in and holding on a single character, giving their offhand words and facial tics grand meaning. In one scene, where Anna is showing Beth how to have attitude as they run the lines in a shitty horror script, Takal tightens the shots on each actor, and when you think the frames can't get more claustrophobic, she situates her performers so close that their faces are nearly touching in one extreme close-up. Meanwhile, there's something too sharp, too real, in Anna's reading.
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In this striking, picturesque locale, where they're surrounded by lush greenery, hilly terrain and a fog that just keeps rolling in, the two are cut off from the world, pushing each other's buttons. By the time Anna, with utter hatred shooting from her eyes, asks Beth, "Do you ever feel like a whore?" for taking off her clothes in so many movies, the competition has stumbled right off the road of sanity. FitzGerald's and Davis' performances are so on-point, so tense, I could feel a tightening in my stomach all the way through.
The sheer genius of this explosive thriller is that even though these two women are squaring off against one another, it is clear throughout that neither is happy with the roles she has been given — and these roles have been granted and reinforced by men. They're under pressure, bending themselves to the wills of others, and as actresses at the mercy of male directors, their pain is extreme. Always Shine is a potent psychological thriller, all right. But it's also a powerful statement on the very industry that produced it.
Starring Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, and Alexander Koch. Directed by Sophia Takal. Written by Lawrence Michael Levine. Not rated. 85 minutes. Opens Friday, December 30, at Bill Cosford Cinema (5030 Brunson Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-4861; cosfordcinema.com).