Mackenzie Davis in Always Shine (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Mackenzie Davis in Always Shine (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

yellowstar Beth and Anna are longtime friends, and both Los Angeles–based actresses are looking down the barrel of that gun called the age of 30. Masters of Sex’s Caitlin FitzGerald plays Beth, whose career is having a moment. Anna (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) still has a dead-end day job and can’t make her credit card payments. Beth has a levelheaded boyfriend, while Anna just broke up with her crazy one. The examples of how much better Beth’s life is keep piling up before Anna’s eyes, and we’re just waiting for her to finally snap.

While Beth enjoys her newfound success, her career isn’t exactly what she wants it to be. Although the roles Beth has been getting have mostly been in slasher films and beer commercials, those jobs provide her with a resume that could potentially land her more satisfying work. Although Beth tries to downplay her success, it’s all Anna can see about her anymore. In fact, she becomes fixated on it, which is why maybe it isn’t such a hot idea for Beth to accompany Anna for a weekend getaway near Big Sur, California, in a remote house with no cell phone reception.

Sometimes to make a striking psychological thriller, all you need is a simple setting and dynamic actors. A throwback to thrillers by the likes of Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma, or, if you will, Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, Always Shine gets the job done. While the filmmakers claim Mulholland Drive had no direct influence over the film, comparisons to the David Lynch masterpiece are inevitable, and are about as high of praise as you can get. The movie plays with the device that Beth and Anna are the same type—blond, skinny, and pretty—and throws in some Lynchian identity swapping, as it is clear Beth’s success could just as easily have been Anna’s.

The actresses layer their deliveries with the passive-aggressiveness that underlies a competitive friendship. Every twinge in their faces exudes the truth that there is no longer a bond, and the film becomes something much darker. From the first shot, there is a foreboding feeling, served up by the eerie plucking sounds of the woodwinds in the soundtrack and the flashes of violent imagery that may or may not be Beth in one of her films. You know the central relationship is going to turn bad from the onset.

The root of all evil is the male-driven industry. While Anna may be demonstrably the stronger actor, it’s easy to understand her conclusion that Beth’s success is due in a large part to her willingness to play roles that were written with the male audience in mind. (Both Anna and Beth’s boyfriend confront her about how many nude scenes she has done; photos of her bare body are all over the Internet.) The women’s struggle to find careers—either giving way to the industry’s sexism or standing up to it—has bled over into their friendship.

Always Shine is the second feature by actor and director Sophia Takal, from a screenplay by her husband, Lawrence Michael Levine. The filmmakers have pulled off a smart—and oddly enough, quite hilarious at moments—little film, all on a shoestring budget. It’s a team effort of cinematography, music, editing, and, last but not least, stellar acting. Everyone involved pitched in their A-game, and it’s a hell of a final product.

Directed by Sophia Takal
Written by Lawrence Michael Levine
Released by Oscilloscope Laboratories
USA. 85 min. Not rated
With Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alexander Koch, and Jane Adams