Mark Reviews Movies

Always Shine


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Sophia Takal

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, Khan Baykal, Alexander Koch, Michael Lowry

MPAA Rating: Not rated

Running Time: 1:25

Release Date: 11/25/16 (limited); 12/2/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 1, 2016

There is, of course, the unique pain of an actor being rejected for a role. It's not just the loss of a possible job in a difficult field. Because of the highly personal nature of the craft, it's also, in a way, the sense of being rejected on account of something about oneself—one's physical appearance/attractiveness or manner or personality or simply the person one happens to be. There's a flip side to that situation, somewhat explored within the dichotomy of the central characters in Always Shine, that's likely ignored.

If the worry about rejection is on account of one's personal traits, then shouldn't an actor be suspicious about what getting a role means about them as a person, too? It all depends on the role one gets or the roles one seems constantly to be getting. Take Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald), the more successful side of the coin here. She is, obviously, an actress, whom we first see (after a short scene of her running, terrified, through the woods) in the middle of an audition—her face, staring straight at the camera, framed against the nothingness of an off-white wall.

The part for which she's reading is, well, more than a bit sexist, very awkward, and plenty degrading. The scene has her pleading with another character who is, holding her captive. She's pleading with this unseen man not to hurt her—begging that he'll spare her life. Maybe, she offers, he'd like to touch her. Would he like it if she took off her clothes?

Beth, playing with the straps of her shirt, starts to break character just enough that the people auditioning her notice. She does know that the role calls for nudity, right? That's what the director asks, and he makes sure she knows that said nudity is going to be "extensive." There can't be a body double here. She knows, and someone else laughs at the fact that Beth is clearly uncertain if she's supposed to be stripping for the audition.

What we learn shortly after this is that Beth is often playing roles that require nudity. Her semi-boyfriend Paul (Khan Baykal), a filmmaker who has directed Beth, understands, although he wonders why she would take off her clothes when she says she doesn't want to do so. This, though, is the sort of role that Beth has come to expect, and people in Hollywood are starting to notice her. She makes for a good ingénue.

As a contrast is Anna (Mackenzie Davis), another actress, whom we first see in a scene that director Sophia Takal sets up as a mirror Beth's introduction (after the running, terrified, through the woods). She also stands in front of a blank wall, having an argument with an unseen auto repairman over an extraneous charge. Anna tries to stay in control in this scene, as she unleashes a torrent of obscenities and minor insults, but it's to no avail.

There are some things that are similar between these two scenes (the treatment of women, although it's heightened in the first scene, being key), but the significant difference comes with the mild shock of a clever conceit on the parts of Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine. Anna isn't auditioning. The scene cuts to a wide shot of her in an auto garage, after losing the debate with the mechanic.

This is Anna. It isn't an act. The suddenness of the reveal immediately forces us to reconsider the way we look at her and, by extension, Beth. If this "audition" scene is showing us Anna as she is, how much of Beth's actual audition scene is showing us the kind of person she is?

The two actresses are friends, and they are taking a weekend trip to Big Sur together. It's the first time they have been together in a while. Beth's career is taking off quite quickly. Anna's has stalled—if it ever got started in the first place.

There's an underlying tension to their conversations together, and Takal jumps ahead with flashes of the road trip and a distorted dialogue track to push us past the polite, getting-reacquainted section of the vacation. What matters is that Anna is jealous of her old friend's success (She bluntly asks if Beth feels "like a whore" and uses a "helpful" script reading as a way to show that she could play Beth's part in an upcoming horror movie better), while Beth feels guilty about ignoring Anna. She's not too guilty, though, because she can sense the pettiness and, later, becomes afraid of the passion of Anna's envy.

The film cuts deep into the struggles of and expectations for women in this superficial industry, in which Beth's look and looks keep her locked into a certain sort of role, while it denies Anna (whom Beth admits is more talented than her) any opportunity, because she's assertive and doesn't fit into a certain mold. It's not just Hollywood, though, that's rejecting Anna. There's something about her that even intimidates a guy—who participates in "men's retreats," no less—at a local bar. The stuff Hollywood produces, after all, is a reflection of society at large.

The film takes a predictable turn (foreshadowed at the beginning). It uses that turn, though, to further explore the relationship between the parts these actresses play, who they are in real life, and how those two sides affect each other—not to mention the split between what they want and what the industry/men want from them. Always Shine is a brief and obvious but, nevertheless, potent examination of the pressures this industry and society put on these characters.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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