Always Shine is a palindromic thriller bursting with formal brilliance and incisive feminist critique. It’s at once a tense drama and a psychological horror story about the nature of performance and the ways that society values a very narrow brand of femininity. The film rewards multiple viewings, allowing the audience to unravel the backwards and forwards motion of its artful narrative. Always Shine also serves as an indictment of Hollywood misogyny and the patriarchal attitudes underlying every facet of society.
The film has a deceptively simple premise. Anna (Mackenzie Davis) and Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) are best friends reconnecting over a long weekend. Both are actresses, but Beth is far more commercially successful than Anna. That discrepancy in their career trajectories is a major source of tension for both women. Their competition is subtle and insidious and has clearly been going on for the entirety of their friendship. Beth is passive-aggressive and prone to sabotage by omission, “forgetting” to tell Anna about men who express romantic or professional interest in her. Anna, on the other hand, is direct and pointed; her stereotypically masculine demeanor — loud, confident, and prone to anger — intimidates Beth but costs Anna both personally and professionally.
It’s clear that Anna and Beth both believe that only one of them can exist in the spotlight. This belief is validated by the Hollywood machine and the men who surround them outside of a professional context. When Anna tries to pick up a man at a bar, he is initially receptive. But her forceful opinions soon sour him on the prospect of going home with her. He turns to Beth, the quiet and demure one, as the more appealing option.
Both women are tall, slender, and blonde; it’s easy to picture them going up against a room full of similar-looking women for the same roles. They’re the same type. In the eyes of society — or a lecherous casting director, like the one who calls Beth “sweetheart” and “honey” at the beginning of the film — they’re interchangeable. The only difference is which pretty blonde is more agreeable, less likely to argue or voice her own opinion. Both women know how this suffocating game works, but only Beth is willing to play it. So she always wins out over Anna.
Director Sophia Takal and writer Lawrence Michael Levine explore the parallels between the two women by way of a fascinating palindrome structure. Flashes of frightening scenes to come intercut mundane interactions, adding another layer of tension on top of the friends’ already fraught relationship. Scenes, shots, and entire paragraphs of dialogue are repeated. This creates a mirror effect that adds a satisfying and disturbing formal element to the film’s themes. Always Shine occasionally veers into surrealism, with dialogue suddenly becoming distorted and a clapperboard appearing at a climactic moment to draw attention to the film’s layers of performance and meaning. Those dialogue distortions include what sounds like backward speech, underlining the palindrome effect and blurring the lines of identity.
Always Shine even works palindromes into its characters’ names. “Anna,” of course, is read the same backwards as it is forwards. It reflects the fact that Anna is exactly who she appears to be, while Beth is constantly playing a role. Additionally, after a confrontation between the two women over professional jealousy, they switch personas, creating another near-palindrome: Anna-as-Beth, Beth-as-Anna.
Only able to play the “helpless” beauty when she’s slipping into the role of Beth, Anna wears Beth’s clothes and adopts her mannerisms, which more closely fit society’s idea of how a woman should look and act. Rather than her own tailored ensemble with pants, Anna-as-Beth wears a flowy floral dress that shows off her legs. Fully committing to the performance, Anna uses her body to look unassuming, minimize her stature and appear unaware of her beauty. She bites her nails, averts her eyes, smiles shyly, and curls inward to shrink as much as possible. She becomes the patriarchal ideal: a beautiful woman who doesn’t know she’s beautiful; a quiet woman who doesn’t acknowledge her worth.
It is a brilliant, studied performance on the part of both Anna and Davis. Both add layers to the social commentary regarding the roles that women have to play to succeed in life. FitzGerald shines as well. Her Beth-as-Anna — who is ignored by everyone except the real Anna — is all confident strides, haughty looks, and bold movements. Both women are gifted actresses playing gifted actresses who must constantly perform in order to navigate a world ruled by men.
One of the most effective shots in the film, which is repeated throughout, is the static close-up at the film’s beginning. Beth auditions for the aforementioned casting director who seems more interested in her willingness to do nude scenes than in her acting ability. Each time the shot is repeated, the viewer focuses solely on Beth or Anna’s face. They hear men’s disembodied voices coming from all directions. But, they’re always being of how each woman is affected by them. Life is a constant audition for Anna and Beth, whether they are dealing with directors, auto mechanics, potential lovers, or any other man in their lives. As women, they must perform to survive, playing the role that the patriarchy wants them to play.
Just as its title suggests, Always Shine is a film that explores the ways that women must perform femininity and present the most appealing face to the world at all times. Its palindromic structure asks the viewer to view the story from both sides to see the true nature of Beth and Anna’s faces. Though Beth’s changes, Anna’s is the same no matter which angle you take. That integrity costs in a world where women must look and act a certain way. Always Shine asks the viewer to examine those patriarchal demands for performance and the ways that women hurt each other when they play the roles expected of them.