Sophia Takal’s New Thriller, “Always Shine”

by on November 22, 2016

Sophia Takal’s new film “Always Shine” may lack the commercial buzz of “Fantastic Beasts” and “Moana.”  Yet this psychological thriller, which opens this Friday at the Roxie Theatre, skillfully infuses a genre tale with unsettling psychological insight. Takal’s choice of the horror genre is not accidental.  The genre is notorious for tropes based on men exploiting the power of life and death over women.  Think of such familiar examples as the woman screaming in terror or the woman who becomes a killer’s victim.  The close-up of Beth pleading for her life is a disturbing mix of fear and self-preservation.

But the director goes farther by questioning the need for existence of such tropes.  Do voyeuristic images of naked women really add anything to a horror film besides providing erection stimuli?

Beth’s shower scenes make the same point of her nudity without needing to embarrass the actress playing the character.   The camera offers generous shots of Beth’s bare back or bare shoulders and face to make its “she’s naked”point.  Only the less male gaze-y fixated sorts will feel cheated by being denied an outlet for privately leering at a woman’s naked body.

It is the close-ups which introduce Anna and Beth that best cue viewers in on Takal’s visual critique of the horror film genre.  Whether it’s Beth’s terrified compliance or Anna’s aggressive challenges, neither woman changes the dominant power dynamic exhibited by the camera or (by implication) the male figure behind the lens.  Takal’s skillful subversion of the thriller genre’s potential for sexism never comes at the expense of sabotaging story tension or shoving its points in the viewer’s face.  Anna, the most likely mouthpiece for such polemical moments, instead conveys her anger at societal sexism wordlessly.

The aforementioned Anna and Bethare the lead characters of Takal’s film. They are two Los Angeles actresses who are also slightly estranged friends.  Beth (Mackenzie Davis, “Halt And Catch Fire”) has become publicly touted as an up-and-coming actress.  Anna (Caitlin FitzGerald, “Masters Of Sex”)has been stuck way too long in the struggling actress netherworld of commercials and obscure film shorts.  Th etwo women get together for a social reconnection weekend at Big Sur.  But what starts out as a pleasant weekend turns into a journey through a minefield of badly buried resentments and jealousies.

Takal does not go into great detail about the backstory of Anna and Beth’s friendship. But a good guess can be made from the hints that are dropped about their characters.  The two women met when bothwere struggling actresses.  The more reserved Beth probably appreciated Anna’s brash responses to the brutality of the acting profession.  Anna in turn probably appreciated someone who wouldn’t judge her assertiveness negatively.   When Beth’s career took off, it drove a wedge between the two women. Perhaps Anna started snarking a bit too viciously about Beth’s success.  Perhaps Beth noticed that Anna wasbeing overly negative about her career.  The end result was the estrangement of the former friends.

The director carefully avoids stacking her narrative deck in favor of either lead woman.  Beth is the more sociable of the two actresses.  Her low-key attitude makesher easily approachable socially.  Yetthat same passiveness is taken by some men as a license to subject Beth to microagressions.  Early in the film, a casting director’s patronizingly refers to Beth as “sweetheart” and promises to make her look beautiful in her nude scenes. A cynical viewer will suspect that the horror filmmakers treat gazing on an actress’ nudity as a fringe benefit of the job.

Anna, on the other hand, has good cause for fighting against society’s many ways of scamming women.  She’s also right that the filmmaking business rewards Beth for not being threatening.  Yet Anna’s continual war with the world results in blowback, particularly in her blindness to negative reactions to her behavior.  A guy Anna is interested in throws out a mock hostile question about her being over-inquisitive.  More tellingly, Anna’s acting lesson in sassiness is way heavier on the hostility than needed. Worsening the struggling actress’ anger is her continually frustrated ambition. Anna yearns for a taste of the professional and personal success that has befallen Beth.  When she sees Beth giving her boyfriend a good bye kiss, her reaction makes clear her own much-frustratedlonging.  Beth’s minimizing attitude towards being celebrated in a magazine as a Young Hollywood up-and-comer feels to Anna like a putdown of her own stalled life.

It may be odd to call “Always Shine” a horror film.  The scares are not of the “jump out and startle viewers” school of terror.  Instead, the horror comes from the degree of repression of women that is considered socially acceptable.  Even Beth’s boyfriend blames her for stripping in front of the camera while ignoring her feeling humiliated that these roles are her career dues.  Anna’s wondering whether Beth feels like a whore when she does nude scenes is doubly hurtful.  It conveys both Anna’s implicit self-righteousness and her minimizing Beth’s being coerced to pay such a price to advance her career.

Yet “Always Shine”’s quietest bit of horror depends on both women being blondes yet otherwise having distinct personalities.  Having spent time with both Anna and Beth, the viewer knows who’s who without much effort.  Yet when identity becomes an issue later in the film, there’s extended uncertainty regarding the person the viewer is seeing onscreen.

The payoff of that uncertainty comes via Takal’s quiet reaming of male inability to perceive female viewpoints.  A bartender seen later in the film derides as snooty Beth’s reluctance to accept a ride from him.  He doesn’t perceive that the combination of Beth’s physical isolation, the coming darkness, and her uncertainty regarding his motives made caution a reasonable response.

“Always Shine” is ultimately a disturbing genre portrait of generally accepted sexism. (“Always Shine” opens on November 25, 2016 at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16 th Street, SF). For further information about the film and to order advance tickets, go here.)

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