Dead by Dawn 2017: Always Shine
Director: Sophia Takal
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Lawrence Michael Levine, Alexander Koch, Jane Adams
Running Time: 85 minutes
Despite showing at a horror film festival “Always Shine” is not your traditional horror film but it does however have strong elements of psychological horror and also falls into that more populated than you think warring females psychodrama sub-genre.
Right from the opening scenes it is easy to note the film’s major themes will be about identity and gender politics. As we open with actress Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) in an audition for a part in a horror movie. The scene is shot with a tight close up of her face and she is reading her lines to two, off-camera, bro-dudes who are more interested in grilling her about her willingness to do the “extensive nudity” in the movie than her acting which she agrees to do albeit unwillingly. We are introduced to her best friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis) in a similar scene which is shot as if it could also be an audition but is actually a real life confrontation over a car repair bill with a mechanic in which she is both condescended too and told off when getting angry at the mechanics condescension.
These scenes nicely set up the characters as it quickly establishes Beth as demure and easily led while Anna is prickly and independent although there is slightly more to both than that. They may be broadly drawn archetypes but it work in the Hollywood context here. It will come as little surprise of the two Beth is the successful one in the movie business while Anna is a struggling actress and part-time waitress.
When the two go on a vacation to Big Sur in order to repair their faltering friendship it is obvious that sparks are going to fly as Anna is clearly jealous of Beth’s success and the way men faun over her and Beth is clearly jealous of Anna’s raw acting talent and willingness to speak her mind. As mentioned this is not a new story and it is one that is not scripted quite as cleverly as the filmmakers think it is as if you have seen this type of movie before it is not difficult to decipher some of the twists and turns that come up before the end credits roll. It also hard for the film to escape unfavourable comparisons to masterpieces like Persona or Mulholland Drive which it shares some DNA with.
The movies biggest coup is undoubtedly the casting. Both actresses fit their roles perfectly as Fitzgerald has that manic pixie dream girl look to her which often seems to appeal to casting directors while Davis, while clearly beautiful, has the look of what Hollywood would consider a “plain girl”. It is much more than their looks that fit the part though as they both put in excellent performances and give life to character’s that could have been very two dimensional if not for the work they both put in. It is a shame that the supporting cast do not make much of an impact but as we spend the bulk of the running time with the leads this does not matter too much.
Other than the fine central performance there is good use of location as by setting it in Big Sur it gives the film as slightly more psychedelic and meditative feel (particularly so if you are a fan of the novelist Jack Kerouac). There is a dream-like feel generally as you don’t know what to trust in the film. Could it be we are watching two sides of the same characters split personality? Is any of this real at all? For example there is a flash of a clapper board during a pivotal sequence suggesting this
may not be reality at all. Also for this being the director debut feature the movie has a strong visual style throughout.
Verdict: A generally good film. While it is hard to get away from the notion that other films have done this sort of thing better and some of the writing is a tad on-the-nose there is also some smartly written stuff, decent direction and, most importantly, two stirring performances from its leads Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin Fitzgerald without which the film may have floundered.
Words by Scott Murphy