There are various intricacies that make ALWAYS SHINE feel like a vague homage to Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA. The emotions of women are a horror subject within itself, where smashing one’s illusion of oneself in order to make another feel subservient challenges the relationship between two actresses Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald). These two besties go for a weekend girls trip up to Big Sur and during this trip the metaphorical claws of passive aggressiveness comes out to play.
But what’s interesting to me is how the film begins. It opens with Beth auditioning for a part in a horror movie with the director off screen, then cut to a few scenes later to Anna with the same framing, the only exception she’s actually dealing with a mechanic, screaming at him because he charged her for something she didn’t ask for. The filmmaker Sophia Takal, gives us two women, one with an aggressive personality and the other more of the submissive type but who’s also the most successful career-wise in the friendship. Its quite a way to illustrate contrast between the two especially when one character is down playing their success to make the other feel better. Yikes and ouch.
Takal also does something very weird when the girls are in the car, conversing on the way up to Big Sur. The conversation is distorted. It’s a total Laurie Anderson move. If anyone listens to her incredible experimental music, you’ll understand the expression. But slowing down their voices, gives off this sinister vibe and I want to understand why she does this as well as intercutting parts of the story that haven’t even occurred yet. She’s clearly mingling parts of the present with the future, but only small fragments of it. It’s a whiplash in storytelling, yet compelling choice because she also incorporates shots of the scenery such as the violent waves crashing against the cliffs. It’s a total empowering metaphor for women and their visceral emotions clashing against each other. For instance, the scene where Anna is conversing with a cute older guy at a bar, totally engaged in the conversation, while Beth is moderately participating yet you can feel this sense of jealousy bubbling beneath the surface. At one point the guy wants to exit the conversation and clearly has his eyes set on Beth and at one point later in the scene, Anna catches Beth giving her number to him. Its such a blatant slap to the face and plays so well in Anna’s expression. It becomes the trigger to her unfolding and Beth knows she’s fucked her over given another scene later on. You’re a great conniving friend, Beth.
These two friends in so many ways exemplify the yin and the yang. As much as their weaknesses and strengths compliment each other they also do great damage. Its such a tug-a-war relationship and how it explodes on screen is partly attributed to Anna’s temper. At one point she tells a story about having such a temper and walking away from a situation but when she’s provoked further she attacks. She’s so good at giving people warning and yet no one listens to her. I mean if I had a friend like Anna, I would try to fight fire with fire. Getting into the arena of confrontation has its appeal because so many things manifest from it, but I’d be inspired by here ability to confront things head on. She has a sense of self worth and it makes her dominate the relationship while Beth plays the pretty, helpless, liar which really doesn’t get her far.
So much of the horror in this film is psychological because you know the story has to come to some kind of crazed resolution. And at one point, just the way the scene is framed it almost feels like Anna stabs Beth, but its trickery to the eye because so much of the frantic strings in the music, Anna’s body language, and crescendo of suspense almost makes you hallucinate the kill. Trust me I watched this scene five times trying to figure out if she did or didn’t because there’s no shot of an actual knife in Anna’s hand. Its solely about the body language that makes it incredibly terrifying. As a side note I also love the line where Anna yells to Beth, “You couldn’t even help me get a part in an avant-garde short!?” Damn, that’s a sad friendship and somehow I laughed just on how Davis delivers the line. She’s so good at delivering anger. I love it.
Essentially, the final act becomes a head trip because one character embodies the other’s personality. Is this because one girl seems to be haunting the other’s psyche in the form of guilt? It’s a bit obscure but it oddly works. You can almost compare it to a very vague Norman Bates from Psycho, but also there’s a recycling transcendence of ideas bringing the core issues between Beth and Anna that really cements their story. Social interactions, personalities, demeanors, and how they evolve over time. I enjoyed this film for the mind-bending twist and also makes me want to sightsee around Big Sur. Because who can resist the big majestically forest with an ocean view? There so many things buried within one’s psyches and utilizing a medium such as film to explore them is quite exhilarating and a refreshing approach in storytelling.