Sophia Takal’s new film Always Shine is an effective, tense psychological thriller with deceptively low stakes: the fate of a friendship between two actresses, played by Caitlin Fitzgerald and Mackenzie Davis. Beth (Fitzgerald) is more pliant and flirty, jovial at auditions, and seems to be booking many more roles than Anna (Davis), who is far blunter and more eager to call out gender discrimination in their line of work. Things between Beth and Anna begin to disintegrate as they take a weekend vacation together. Takal turns their banal-seeming conversations into a thrill ride, questioning the ways women perform for each other, and the people around them, in an oppressively sexist industry.
Always Shine, which is in limited release now and debuts on VOD Friday, is the latest project in a career year for Davis, who (unlike her character) is one of Hollywood’s most intriguing new stars. Curiously enough, her biggest roles in 2016—in Always Shine, the AMC tech drama Halt and Catch Fire, and the new season of Netflix’s Black Mirror—involve tumultuous but layered female friendships, a still-uncommon theme in mainstream pop culture. In October, Davis appeared in “San Junipero,” the most widely praised installment of the third season of Black Mirror, as the awkward, lovelorn Yorkie. The rare Black Mirror episode to present a slightly hopeful take on the future of technology, “San Junipero” saw Yorkie navigating a virtual world in search of love, then struggling to reconcile her new connection with the free-spirited Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with her much more circumscribed lifestyle in the real world.
Also hinging on a complex relationship between two women is Halt and Catch Fire, which aired its brilliant third season this year. Davis’s first major role was playing the lovable and deeply frustrating programmer Cameron Howe, who attempts to navigate the burgeoning tech scene of the ’80s—and all of its institutional sexism—with her business partner Donna (Kerry Bishé). Their relationship has its share of conflicts, though they don’t arise over a man, or some manufactured twist in the women’s love lives. Instead, Halt and Catch Fire takes care to make their differences of opinion feel organic, rooted in their wider views of the world. “There’s nobody getting knifed,” Davis told me. “It’s people breaking your trust, small moments becoming a huge deal.”
A much more avant-garde work, Always Shine puts an edgier spin on a similar dynamic—an intense female friendship—with a script drawn from real-life experience. “[The film’s writer/director] Sophia Takal is extremely open ... about her vulnerabilities and her demons, her competitiveness, her jealousy, things she feels insecure about,” Davis said.“It felt embarrassing how much I connected to [the script]. I felt like someone was portraying me in a very honest way.” The movie has the same nightmarish feel as Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, in which the identities of both female leads begin to meld as their personal rivalry grows. Takal’s script builds its psychological tension around the anxieties Beth and Anna perceive in each other; she plays with, and subverts, the appearances actresses often have to maintain as they try to break into the film industry.
“The sort of poisonous female friendship that’s depicted in Always Shine, it’s not the cause of the movie. It’s the result of an environment that tells women that they’re supposed to be a certain way or they have failed,” Davis said. “They’re constantly trying to fit themselves into smaller, tighter, more perfect boxes. And when they see somebody doing it effortlessly, it’s this indictment against them for not doing it the right way. And I have absolutely had that experience, and I knew Sophia had.”
As with so much art of the moment, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the election. For Davis, the ideas about gender and social expectations that undergird Always Shine were magnified in media coverage of the former presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton. “She’s been criticized her entire public life for being too much or not enough in any direction, and there’s no place she can land where it’s just silent,” Davis said of the critiques Clinton received for her image, including how much or how little she was smiling. “There are thousands of politicians that don’t have to receive the level of ... vitriol that she does.”
In Always Shine, the effort to project the right image becomes a dark competition. As Beth and Anna vie for attention both from Hollywood executives and from the patrons of a local bar near their weekend getaway, their interactions become malicious. “I think it’s cool to make [their dynamic] as active and dangerous as Sophia makes it, instead of this purely internal experience of trying to adjust and exercise in a different way,” Davis said. “There are so many off-limits things for women, and finding that narrow groove in which it’s okay for you to exist, is going to cause someone to explode. And this movie is about that explosion.” Throughout her burgeoning career, Davis has been unafraid to reckon with those kinds of explosion and their aftermath—and Always Shine is one of her boldest achievements yet.