Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“Don’t think that because someone else got something, you’re not gonna get something else. There’s always a space for you because there is no one exactly like you. Don’t extinguish someone else’s candle to make yours brighter.”
These are the words, courtesy of Chelsea Handler (or rather her sister’s wise advice), that I wish I could tell the gals in director Sophia Takal’s ALWAYS SHINE. But they are actresses whose experiences haven’t exactly lined up with this saying. The unsettling phantasmagoric, psychological thriller unnerves with its sharp slaying of the Hollywood industry’s rampant sexism.
Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) is a horror film scream queen who’s used to the everyday horrors of casting calls and hellish auditions forcing her to disrobe. Her star is finally on the rise, but her abrasive friend Anna’s (Mackenzie Davis) star is falling fast. Not only has Anna’s acting career hit the skids, she’s under a crushing amount of debt, her credit cards have been cancelled, her love life is non-existent and she might be homeless soon. The pair haven’t been the best of friends lately, but are hoping a trip up to Big Sur will mend that. And if you’ve seen I MELT WITH YOU, you’ll know exactly how well friendly Big Sur getaways go.
Dread-soaked atmosphere permeates the picture, punctuating transitions between the scenes. Takal, along with editor Zach Clark, really makes these cuts land. Michael Montes’ score creeps under the skin. Without it, scenes would lack the impact necessary for putting the audience on edge.
On the surface, this has a lot in common with QUEEN OF EARTH, another tense, disturbing female-driven film about a psychological unraveling with two friends who go away together. There’s also a “WTF” switcheroo that occurs a little past the midway point that’s reminiscent of MULHOLLAND DRIVE with a dash of FREAKY FRIDAY.
While I typically don’t like films that feature women passive-aggressively sniping at each other (because why feed into that catty stereotype?!), Takal’s film reaches beyond the standard to hit home that Hollywood is the real villain, feeding on insecurities, augmenting jealousy between colleagues. Maybe because of FitzGerald and Davis’ inherent likeability, I cared about both of their characters from the get-go, sympathizing with their travails. Well, at least until Beth violates the “bro code” by taking the phone number of a guy Anna likes. Though the film is relatively free of jump scares and doesn’t contain any gore, it remains constantly frightening to see these ladies’ friendship unraveling. And if you’ve ever had a-way-too-jealous colleague looking to SINGLE WHITE FEMALE you (yes, that’s a verb now, people), this will feel all too real.
It does stray a little too far into “weird for weird’s sake,” but since it’s relatively short on run time, it steadies itself quickly. With a fast pace and solid performances from actresses that should be household names by now, ALWAYS SHINE shines.
ALWAYS SHINE is now playing in New York. It opens Friday in Los Angeles and other top ten markets.