Watch it with us: Letterboxd
One of the great things about Letterboxd (which I am not shilling for, I just love their site and wish everyone would use it so I would know what all my friends are watching) is its list functionality—users can make lists of movies on any topic. When I logged Always Shine (2016) this morning and saw that it appears on the list “movies where female friendships are the scariest concept on earth,” along with forty other movies, I was surprised more by the frequency with which female friendship is the center of a film than by the fact that it turns toxic so often. There’s something inherently dangerous about women becoming close friends, and filmmakers love to let their imaginations run wild with the myriad ways these friendships can combust.
In many ways, Always Shine picks up where Mulholland Drive left off. The two main characters are actresses, one enjoying newfound success and the other still trying to get a toehold in the industry. Beth (Caitlin Fitzgerald) is raking in cash from a recent beer ad and has just been cast in a low-budget horror movie, while Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is struggling in both her career and her personal life. As she confides in Beth, “I feel so out of control.” The two friends head out for a weekend getaway in a remote cabin to try and repair their friendship—always a good idea if you’re the protagonist of a horror movie, although Beth’s apologetic plot summary of the schlocky film she’s set to star in feels like a wink at the audience. Director Sophia Takal knows what she’s doing by sending her heroines to a cabin in the mountains, and she knows we know it too.
The two women bring out the worst in each other: the naturally outspoken Anna becomes aggressive when she realizes Beth has been deliberately downplaying her success, making Beth retreat further into her shell. Their frustration with each other reaches a breaking point when a man Anna is chatting up at a bar brushes her off and asks for Beth’s number instead; Beth, who has barely said a word to the man all evening, gives it to him even though she has a boyfriend. The next morning the two women go for a walk in the woods, and from that point on things begin to splinter. Anna goes out wearing Beth’s clothes, wearing her hair like Beth does, and immediately things begin to improve for her. She adopts Beth’s mannerisms, chewing on her thumb and speaking in softer tones and agreeing with everyone, and the first man she meets falls in love with her, telling her, “I feel like you really understand me.” But Beth’s not gone—she keeps showing up when things are going well for Anna, dressed in Anna’s clothes and wearing Anna’s trademark red lipstick, repeating things Anna said to her in the heat of anger.
Always Shine deals with gender roles and traditional notions of femininity with a light, sophisticated touch. Beth is the “appropriate” one, the docile blank slate who lets people project whatever they want onto her, while Anna gets scolded by a mechanic for her “unladylike” language at the beginning of the film. But these seemingly simple roles are blurred by the fact that both women are actresses and are therefore accustomed to taking on other personalities. Tellingly, passive Beth is the more successful of the two, but even she admits that Anna is the better actress. Beth has helped her career along by her willingness to appear nude onscreen despite her boyfriend’s objections—he clearly feels a sense of ownership over her body. And she’s less than comfortable with it herself; Anna asks her casually if she ever feels “like a whore,” and after a long pause, Beth answers in the affirmative. Both put the responsibility and the blame for Beth’s role choices on Beth herself, as if she’s volunteering to take her clothes off onscreen. Conforming to the film industry’s ideas of how women are supposed to behave has made Beth successful, but she’s having a hard time enjoying it. She blames the abrasive Anna for this, wondering why Anna can’t just be happy for her. But Anna is faring no better; her reward for sticking to her guns and refusing to become a limp crowd-pleasing everygirl is that she constantly get passed over for women like Beth. Her anger is wrong, unladylike, and eventually it pushes her to the brink, making her desperate to reclaim what she thinks Beth and women like her have stolen from her.
Perhaps Hollywood’s fascination with toxic female friendships is that there’s so much potential for these relationships to fragment in interesting ways. Beth and Anna don’t exist in a vacuum: both are trying to navigate an industry that treats women with frank hostility more often than we realize, and that consciously pits them against each other in competition for work. And when your work is to lose yourself in another personality, it’s only natural to let this bleed over into your everyday life and use your skill at becoming someone else to make yourself over into a happier, more successful version of you. In a way, Anna’s transformation into Beth is her greatest artistic achievement. But like all great art, it comes at a cost.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.