Directed by Sophia Takal, the movie, which premiered at the festival this week, tells the story of two actresses who ditch Los Angeles for a long weekend trip to Big Sur. Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is confident and talented, but still struggling to find her big break — "Female actresses have to establish themselves by 30 or they are done," she says. The doe-eyed and timid Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is netting money and buzz from a string of lame horror movies — the kind where she takes off her clothes and screams a lot. The jealousy-fueled tension between them boils over violently in this subtly surreal thriller.
Though never too preachy, every scene of Takal's movie is laced with social commentary about the ridiculous expectations thrust on ambitious women. Anna is bold and confident, but the men in her life (boyfriends, would-be producers and managers, even a random guy at a bar), see her as aggressive and abrasive. Davis, one of the stars of AMC's wildly underrated "Halt and Catch Fire," makes viewers feel the emotional wounds from that relentless sexism. The role won her best actress Thursday at the festival.
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Beth, on the other hand, played by Fitzgerald of "Masters of Sex," cannot help but get ahead. But it comes at the cost of her own identity. The pretty actress constantly acquiesces to the men in her life, who adore and feel "understood" by her, despite, or rather because of, her disengagement. Shooting a screen test for a role as a rape victim, she cries, "I'll do whatever you want." When the camera cuts and the male producers lecture her about the role's nudity requirements, the sentiment does not change.
The tragic irony Takal exposes here is that society all too often asks women to be both of these characters simultaneously. In the face of that impossibility, Anna and Beth turn their anger on each other. Anna cuts Beth down at every opportunity, resentful of her success, and Beth does all she can to halt Anna's career, jealous of her confidence and talent.
In the film's second half, that resentment turns sinister as the more experimental elements of this tense thriller take hold. For some viewers, the ambiguity of the film's final act will be frustrating — its secrets will not be spoiled here — but "Always Shine" delivers one of the best and most stylistically assured rides of the festival.