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Always Shine (2016)


 This review is part of a series: 31 Days of Horror Directed by Women.

Always Shine is a slow, quiet horror exploring themes of jealousy, success, talent, and deeply held expectations re: femininity. The film opens with a quote:

"It is a woman's birthright to be attractive and charming. In a sense, it is her duty... She is the bowl of flowers on the table of life."

This quote is taken from a book entitled Secrets of Poise, Personality and Model Beauty. Published in 1961, the cover features a blond woman sporting white gloves and pearls standing in front of a radiant sunset. It's author is a man named John Robert Powers. Reading the quote makes me tilt my head and go, What the fuck???? The film's director, Sophia Takal, then spends the next 90 minutes fleshing out the horror such limiting statements can breed.

Always Shine is a thoughtful film about two people who need to stop being friends immediately. The two golden-haired women at its center have a thorny, isolating type of relationship. The closer they become physically, the more intimate and biting their mutual resentment of each other grows. They circle slowly around every unsaid thing between them, like vultures over the carcass of a dead animal. Their friendship, too, is dead; each woman knows it and seems set on pretending otherwise. Takal makes us watch the inevitable ending of their friendship play out at an isolated home in the woods of Big Sur.

The two friends are Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Anna is an aspiring actress who waits tables to support herself as she struggles to make it as an actress. She wears a red lip, which happens to accentuate the chief feature about her that people seem to hate: her mouth. Beth is, conversely, quite demure and seems to have a steady stream of acting work—even if it's not quite the type of work she'd necessarily brag about. Anna's brash, outspoken nature make a definitive statement when she walks in a room, while Beth's quiet demeanor allows others to project whatever qualities they like onto her. While there is certainly a laundry list of veritable grievances each has against the other, the stark difference in the way other people—friends and strangers—respond to Anna vs. Beth only intensifies the flame of their burning friendship.
The film certainly doesn't let you forget for even one second that everything—everything—is Anna vs. Beth. This is the invisible demon sitting on the back of their relationship. It is both the chief reason their friendship fails and the glue that makes it impossible for them to let their connection fade. It's scary! Really, their interactions are so fucking toxic: they oscillate effortlessly between best wishes and barbs. The film slowly escalates this dismal dynamic, isolating the pair in their misery even as they have a series of upsetting interactions with others. These others are, more often than not, men. These scenes leave an impact on the viewer as well as the two friends, as they highlight the type of woman the patriarchy likes to reward—and those it likes to punish.

Far from being a flat portrait of catty women destroying each other—though it is that, on a surface level—the film allows both women to feel human. You see why their friendship isn't healthy, but both women are relatable enough that you still root for them to get their shit together. I really don't think Takal is interested in reveling in two women tearing themselves apart or in belittling women's desires. Instead, Always Shine allows Beth and Anna's story to shine a light on how small the box of "acceptable" or "attractive" behavior is for women. The narrative's slow descent into violence is thrilling to watch—but it's portrayal is thoughtful enough to prompt some questions, too. Why isn't there space for women like Anna? What about Beth's personality makes us want to identify more with her? Which one of them is the bitch in this relationship? Or is it neither of them? What is the alternative to destroying ourselves to fit into ridiculous standards established by men and upheld by all of us?