I’ve had the pleasure this year of screening a number of selections from this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which took place April 13th-24th.
Directed by Sophia Takal
The best films in a given genre work hard to expand upon typical tropes and other recognizable features and formats, experimenting and transforming expectations into something more. Such efforts often please fans of that genre and also attract those who are not usually part of that group. “Always Shine,” at first glimpse, is a film about two actresses taking a weekend away from Los Angeles and traveling to Big Sur. Close-up audition takes, creepy music, and frantic scrolling opening titles indicate that this story of friendship is a much more intense and frightening adventure.
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is first seen reading lines for a horror film, and is told repeatedly after she pauses that the part she is reading for contains extensive nudity. She is relatively quiet and rarely speaks up, but she has a sweet nature that seems to make people like her. Her friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), on the other hand, is considerably more boisterous and unfiltered, usually cast in louder and bolder parts than the innocent girl running for her life. It is clear that Beth has achieved more success in their field than Anna, and Beth’s casual downplaying of the mediocre nature of her latest role, while perfectly well-intended, does not sit well with Anna, setting the stage for a foreboding build-up to an explosion of emotions far removed from the rest of civilization.
“Always Shine,” which is probably most accurately described as a psychological thriller, sets itself up as a horror movie from the start, with frequent flashing images laced with fear and death accompanied by short, high-pitched musical notes designed to make the spine tingle. Even when the two are sitting together in a crowded restaurant before they leave for their trip, the mood is tense and dark. For this particular story, that works well, but the film does seem unnecessarily dreary and brooding at times. That’s all in the service of its path to a trippy transition and a mind-boggling ending that has probably delighted some but left this viewer far from satisfied.
There are a few supporting actors who appear throughout the film, but this is a two-woman show. These two actresses have very different styles, and those work well to create a complex friendship for their characters that is based largely on a craft which unites but also divides them. FitzGerald, who stars in “Masters of Sex,” does a strong job of firmly establishing Beth’s discomfort and general squeamishness, while Davis, who stars in “Halt and Catch Fire,” holds nothing back in the most terrific and compelling way as Anna refuses to let Beth get away with silently usurping her. This is a strange and disturbing film, one that may entice but one that it is also perplexing and off-putting at the same time.