Five Years Later: Sophia Takal’s ‘Always Shine’ (2016) and the Horror of Being Trapped in Performance

The history of film is filled with portrayals of women on the verge of a breakdown, often in combination with a depiction of a female friendship that turns violent and/or into an identity crisis. Examples that come to mind range from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Robert Altman’s 3 Women to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. However, with Sophia Takal’s Always Shine—which premiered five years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival—we finally got another addition in this category of films, but this time from the perspective of a female director. 

Directed by Takal and written by her husband and frequent collaborator Lawrence Michael Levine, Always Shine focuses on two friends—both actors with vastly different levels of success—who leave Los Angeles for Big Sur on a weekend getaway to reconnect. However, once alone, the women’s suppressed jealousy bubbles to the surface, causing them to lose grasp of not just the nature of their relationship, but their own identities. 

Always Shine opens with an extract from Secrets of Poise, Personality and Model Beauty, a 1961 etiquette book for women by John Robert Powers. “It’s a woman’s birthright to be attractive and charming,” it says. “In a sense, it is her duty…She is a bowl of flowers on the table of life.” Being a bowl of flowers on the table of life means that you’re decorative. You’re there for other people’s viewing pleasure, but eventually, you won’t be desirable anymore. If you end up being undesirable by other’s standards, someone else is always waiting in line to replace you—which is especially true for women acting in Hollywood. 

Through a close-up shot, Always Shine introduces Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) as she’s looking directly into the camera while crying and begging someone off-screen not to kill her. “You want to touch me? You can touch me,” Beth suggests in desperation. She offers to do anything, reminiscent of so many other scenes we’ve seen before where a woman is reduced to flesh as she tries to earn a chance at survival. It’s soon revealed we’re witnessing an audition, as male voices off-screen comment on Beth’s performance and remind her that the role she’s auditioning for will require extensive nudity. Although she is uncomfortable, she doesn’t complain because she doesn’t want to make a scene. 

Image is a wide shot with Beth to the far left and Anna to the far right as they’re outside. Behind them is the Big Sur landscape, with thick woods and never-ending trees. Beth is lying with her feet up on a sunbathing chair made of wood as she’s flicking through a new script. Anna is wearing black tights along with socks and a sports bra in a bright pink colour. She’s standing on her toes on a yoga mat, exercising, holding one hand on her hip and the other helping her to balance as she’s holding onto the wooden rail next to her.
Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

When we’re later introduced to Beth’s friend Anna (Mackenzie Davis), it’s through a scene mirroring Beth’s audition, as Anna is arguing with an off-screen auto mechanic who sounds just as flat as any audition reader. However, when the camera pulls back, it’s revealed that it isn’t an audition taking place, but a real-life situation where Anna is struggling to pay for her car repairs—which are $300 more expensive than initially agreed upon. She’s wearing her emotions on her sleeve, not afraid of causing a scene while being told that she should behave more ladylike. 

Beth often downplays her own achievements, saying that they’re nothing special, which inherently feels like a typically female way of modestly talking about success. It should be enough that so many others around us are trying to minimise our achievements—we shouldn’t do it to ourselves. Beth plays the game and gets rewarded for it, but she still sacrifices parts of herself—as her jobs mostly focus on her looks instead of her talent—to get ahead in an industry that demands so much and rewards so little. In comparison, Anna is far less successful, as she refuses to play the game and is punished for it. It’s admirable that she tries to express herself, but it also doesn’t work for her, as her authenticity doesn’t bring her much relief or happiness in life.

“If I was a boy, nobody would be telling me to calm down,” Anna declares at one point. Anna—who is very outspoken and has trouble containing her temper—comes across as a woman who certain men would easily label ‘crazy’ and ‘hysterical’ as they try to distance themselves from her. All of these sayings are commonly used as a way to brush off valid emotions and opinions, instead reducing them to irrational overreactions based on gender. 

While Anna is much more expressive with her feelings, Beth is just as emotional underneath her innocent exterior. Trying to come across as sweet and unopinionated all the time takes its toll, and Beth is like a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Throughout the film, it’s revealed that Beth has deliberately sabotaged potential romances and career opportunities for Anna. Beth’s insensitiveness is further evident in a scene where Anna sees Beth giving her mobile number to a man Anna was previously flirting with. It’s a scene that’s played out so brilliantly, as viewers can almost feel the slap in the face of betrayal that Anna experiences. Later that night, she cries herself to sleep but it happens in private, as these women are constantly composed around each other. 

Anna is evidently very beautiful, but when placed as an alternative next to Beth, men always choose Beth. Anna is less inclined to stay quiet in the background when people treat her badly, which makes her come across to others—especially men—as less desirable, with her argumentative and ‘too much’ persona. In comparison, Beth doesn’t question things or demand much, as to not take up space. Well, isn’t a woman who goes with the flow the dream for many? A woman that doesn’t cause a scene, who isn’t too much, but just enough? 

Always Shine suggests that women have to be performing according to societal expectations, otherwise they’ll receive comments regarding how their performance is wrong, how it’s not desirable. Even though Anna and Beth aren’t necessarily each other’s enemies, society lures them into believing that, as they’re pitted against each other instead of both thriving. Since we were born, society has constantly told us that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways of existing in the world. Conform or be excluded—or worse. As masterfully demonstrated in the mirroring introductions, viewers quickly learn that while one character conforms, the other is unafraid to speak her mind. Throughout the film, it’s evident how differently they’re treated because of this. It’s evident that neither is happy with the roles provided for them—roles that have been given and reinforced by society. Beth plays the game while Anna refuses to participate, but neither is winning. 

Image is a close-up of Anna, to the left, and Beth, to the right. Beth is looking down at her script that’s off-screen, her eyes not meeting Anna as if she doesn’t dare to. Anna, wearing a bright pink sports bra with a grey lining around it, is almost hanging over Beth. Anna is in full control, with a strained face looking right at Beth with her intense and piercing eyes as they’re running lines.
Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

What happens in Always Shine matters less than how it happens, as the film seems to be all about reaching the boiling point, and then dancing around it until it eventually begins to overflow. These scenes send the film into an eerie unknown, and its tension is particularly felt by viewers in two scenes; namely during an overheard phone call as well as during a script reading. When Anna offers to help Beth run lines for an audition that requires attitude, she eventually takes control of the scene and reaches something that Beth can’t access. During the scene, the camera creeps closer to create an overwhelmingly claustrophobic feeling as the women’s faces get closer until they’re almost touching. Viewers can almost feel the hostility translate through the screen, as Beth’s loss of confidence in her talent makes her acting fall flat, whilst Anna’s confidence gives her full charge of the situation. 

Beth is tired of only being valued for her body, but she’s simultaneously insecure about her position in the film industry since she suspects that her physical appearance rather than her talent is what has made her successful. It’s an exploitative cycle, as people always assume that she’s okay with being nude, and Beth fears that without agreeing to these kinds of roles, she won’t get any work—or she’ll quickly be replaced. This notion causes Beth much distress, which is only intensified when Anna convinces her to run lines with her, as it brings Beth’s insecurities to the surface, including her awareness that Anna is the more talented of the two. 

Always Shine is filled with visual storytelling, and one of the most prominent examples is how the majestic but simultaneously haunting Big Sur landscape acts as an additional character. It visually depicts the women’s inner turmoil, as the waves that crash against cliffs resemble the clashes between Anna and Beth that continue to grow more violent. Anna finally snaps after she overhears Beth talking about her on the phone, which results in Anna physically attacking—and eventually killing—Beth. The next day, instead of expressing remorse, Anna is seemingly performing as Beth. Mirroring Beth in both appearance and personality, men suddenly show interest in her, as she’s now “soft and sweet.” However, as Anna starts seeing hallucinations of Beth—who is now acting as Anna—her performance begins to shatter as the consequences of her actions become inescapable. Suddenly, the potential interchangeability of Always Shine’s lead women is more prominent than ever.

Anna and Beth mirror each other, and they both love and hate the mirror and what it represents. While watching one another, they each see what they wish they had. Anna is envious of Beth’s success while Beth is envious of Anna’s talent, and the other’s successes simultaneously affirm the other’s failures. Anna and Beth are both blonde, tall, thin, and white, and the film toys with their resemblance. This is especially evident in shots where their faces are almost overlapping, suggesting their duality. Even though there are obvious differences in their appearances, men see these women as being interchangeable. An evident example of this is when Anna takes on the role of Beth. As she’s flirting with a bartender who previously gave the real Beth a ride home, he doesn’t even recognise that they’re two separate individuals. 

Image shows Anna – still looking like Beth in her physical appearance – waking up in the woods of Big Sur. She’s alone and she looks disoriented in her facial expression, with a confused expression as she looks ahead of herself with a mixture of emptiness and fear in her eyes. She’s still wearing Beth’s button-up romper suit with a flower pattern with a light brown belt in the waist.
Image courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

Always Shine offers viewers different interpretations to engage in, as the story can be read in both a straightforward and more experimental way. While the more straightforward reading focuses on Anna and Beth as two separate beings where things go awry, there’s a more experimental reading available through the interpretation of Anna and Beth as two divided halves of the same whole. The dark descent of Anna and Beth’s friendship when read as two halves of the same whole portrays the pain of constantly being conflicted about how to perform when we never feel accepted while being our real selves. Sometimes, like Anna, we’re punished by our surroundings because our selves aren’t aligning with their societal expectations. And sometimes, like Beth, we’re so afraid to live authentically that we end up punishing ourselves. 

Within Anna and Beth’s clash lies the inner turmoil that many women experience when they’re torn in regards to which role is the more ‘appropriate’ one to perform. Who hasn’t felt like Anna or Beth at certain points? Who hasn’t played a more modest and non-threatening role, just to stop an already uneasy situation from spiralling into something violent? And who hasn’t felt the cup overflowing, that you’ve had enough? Anna acts like many of us often wish that we could in specific situations, as she challenges anyone that treats her badly. To demand more of the people around us—to question decisions or stand up for ourselves—is desirable as the act itself equals ≈ our own worth. But for many, it’s not even an option. No matter how we might be feeling on the inside, we might need to act differently—maybe to be respected or get what we want, but sometimes even to de-escalate a situation that could turn dangerous.

While Always Shine isn’t as self-reflexive as Bergman’s Persona—which features a projector starting up, coming undone, film stock burning up and a shot of the actual film crew—Takal chooses to toy with self-reflexiveness quite potently in one particular scene. During the fatal struggle in the woods—which is a moment filled with high intensity—an actual clapperboard enters the frame to interrupt the flow of the performance. The inclusion of this device forces viewers to think of the film as a medium, reminding them that it’s all staged performances—something so many other films work so hard to make viewers forget.  

The inner chaos originating from being trapped in performance is portrayed through the multifaceted characters of Anna and Beth, and it’s chaos many can recognise themselves in. You can’t always win by fully being yourself, but you also can’t fully win by being someone else. This constant inner struggle leads to disastrous results, as it’s become hard to separate what’s real and what’s performative. What’s even the difference anymore? Always Shine unfolds like a dream and lingers like a nightmare, but the actual horror lies in its accuracy of portraying the struggle of performance. With every layer of bright red lipstick that’s applied, viewers will find a shade that speaks to their own experience.