A classic case of a film whose reach exceeds its grasp, director Sophia Takal’s audacious psychological thriller Always Shine is half of a great movie that ends up trying to be more than it can handle. But there are worse things than too much ambition. Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) and Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) play struggling L.A. actresses whose once-close friendship is starting to turn toxic from jealousy and competitiveness. FitzGerald’s soft-spoken Beth is the more successful one, having landed an agent and a string of parts in schlocky slasher movies where she usually has to disrobe before being hacked to ribbons. Davis’ short-fused Anna is a wannabe who can’t seem to catch a break. And Beth’s sheepish humility just makes Anna even angrier. Looking to reconnect, the two drive up to Big Sur for a forced weekend of fun that instead becomes a minefield of awkwardness.
Takal and writer Lawrence Michael Levine (who also has a role in the film) spring-load their story with tense, uncomfortable truths about the ways that female friendships can be tested. And FitzGerald and Davis are both excellent, convincingly turning the smallest, most seemingly harmless discussions into highly charged cat-and-mouse workouts. In one of the movie’s most electric scenes, the women run lines together. It’s clear that there’s not only a ton of subtext bubbling under the scene but also that it’s the unsuccessful Anna who’s really the better actress. In that moment you understand her resentment toward Beth. Had the movie kept prodding that exposed nerve, Always Shine would have been a complete winner. But Takal and Levine strain for something more meta. Just before the hour mark, the story takes a Lynchian third-act whiplash twist — a detour onto Mulholland Drive. It turns out to be a dead end. And just when you were starting to hand yourself over to the film’s fictional reality, it screams its artifice at you. The too-clever conceit sabotages the whole thing. B–