As Always Shine makes its way to the public eye, it will almost certainly earn a seat in the conversation about the budding golden age of independent horror cinema, that which has thus far housed the likes of The Babadook, It Follows, and The Witch. Even among rare gems like these, however, Always Shine ranks unique. Whereas the movies in question are built from the ground up on their respective cinematic traditions—ghost stories and teen slasher flicks, for instance— Always Shine feels as though it came about its footing in the horror genre by function alone.
Telling a scary story is far from Always Shine’s top priority. At the forefront of its mind is the subject of misogyny, which it lays out immaculately—with incredible nuance and not a hint of “message movie” directivity—via the relationship between its leads, Caitlin Fitzgerald and Mackenzie Davis.
Longtime friends and disparately successful aspiring actors, the young women hole up in a remote cabin to reconnect and get away from the grind. Before even leaving the city, the duo’s differences begin to brew trouble. While Beth (Fitzgerald) is compulsively demure, Anna (Davis) is brash, brazen, and—to borrow a phrase from a particularly cantankerous automotive mechanic who appears early on in the film—“un-ladylike.”
The remark is hardly out of left field; every one of the ladies’ professional successes (re: Beth) and speed bumps (re: Anna) teased before the weekend getaway are appended to the discussion of sexism, ditto the conflicts to erupt the moment they join forces to set off into the woods. That said, what results from the marriage of their opposing manifestations of female empowerment is not just a rich examination of contemporary gender roles, but also a dynamic deconstruction of character. Though operating in part as symbols on a spectrum, Always Shine’s leads are vibrantly alive, each commanding empathy in their increasingly volatile head-to-head.
Ultimately, Beth and Anna’s enmity reaches its apex, exploding in a fashion that doesn’t actually relieve but skyrockets the tension. Director Sophia Takal employs top grade trapeze artistry in her transition from straightforward thriller to pseudo-surreal head-and-heart trip. Although Always Shine employs new tricks midway through, nothing feels whatsoever out of step with its tone or psychology. Every new, unexpected move feels like the most exciting logical progression this story may have taken. That the horror modus is so low on Always Shine’s checklist is maddening considering how good it is at building it.
With only a few scant stale moments and hiccups in design, Always Shine proves itself the next great entry in a number of cinematic conversations. It’s a horror movie worth getting spooked over, a feminist dialogue deserving all ears, and—simply enough—a damn inventive and entertaining flick in its own right.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 burritos.
Images: Tribeca Film Festival
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Find him on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.