Always Shine (2016)



I first heard of the psychological horror cheapie Always Shine when its director, Sophia Takal, mentioned in an interview on the Lady Problems podcast that she was annoyed by its constant comparisons with the Alex Ross Perry film Queen of Earth, since the two works were produced simultaneously & independently. She even suggested in the interview that Perry may have read the screenplay for her film before writing his own, lightly suggesting that their coincidental parallels might not be so coincidental after all. As I pointed out when I labeled 2014 as The Year of the Doppelgänger, it’s not at all uncommon for doppelgänger films to find their own unlikely doppelgängers in the world. In fact, it’s an eerily frequent occurrence. If you can recall back a full year, though, Queen of Earth was highly rated around here as one of our Top Films of 2015, so seeing a smaller, less celebrated work that might have influenced its production was an exciting prospect for me. Unfortunately, I can only add to Takal’s frustration by admitting that Always Shine was only interesting to me as a comparison point for Perry’s superiorly executed work, and only barely so.

Always Shine opens with two striking, tightly framed monologues that codify its two main characters, played by recognizable-from-TV-roles actors Mackenzie Davis & Caitlin FitzGerald, as a demurely feminine waif & an “unladylike” take-no-shit brute. Best friends, but professional rivals in their acting careers, the two women often find themselves competing for roles, much to the detriment of their personal relationship. The demurely feminine character is rewarded for her sheepishness by the men who control her life: lovers, casting directors, strangers, etc. The confident one is punished for her perceived unfeminine brashness and is professionally unsuccessful as a result, despite being the more talented actor. This tension comes to a head when the two friends vacation together in a remote locale in Southern California, igniting a bottled up nightmare of competitive jealousies that results in a violent confrontation & a disorienting psychological break. Any tension lurking under the surface of their friendship is made explicitly clear & insurmountably cruel, leading the two women to a breaking point that cannot be mended once it’s reached.

I like the basic structure & themes of this narrative and both Davis & FitzGerald are exceptionally well suited for their respective roles. That’s about where my appreciation for Always Shine stops. The gloriously disorienting opening, where you can’t tell where an actor’s audition ends & the real world begins, is a great window into where the film will eventually go once it gets its plot rolling. However, that style of stilted, unnatural dialogue continues throughout the film’s entire length, never allowing either of its central characters to feel like a real person, since you can feel the screenwriter’s fingerprints on every word they deliver. The characters are way too cleanly categorized, to the point where the more confident one says something to the effect of, “If I weren’t a woman . . .” in at least the first three conversations she participates in. This clean cut stageyness bleeds into the way the film’s pinnacle psychological break is depicted as well. Unlike with Queen of Earth, there’s never any question of what a character is imagining & what is “really” happening. This means that its blend of identities & indulgences in fantasy signify nothing in any given moment, since it’s always evident they’ll have no effect on the “true” plotline. Worst yet, the film is overly impatient with its own sense of mood. As soon as the opening credits it begins an assault of quick, abrasive edits that scream “Don’t worry! This is Art Horror! It’ll get weird!” between calm scenes of dialogue that deserve a less oppressive hand in how they’re delivered. In attempting dread & disorientation, the atmosphere-evoking cuts of Always Shine feel like an obnoxious joke at th the expense of artsy horror films as a genre instead of a genuine participation in that aesthetic.

I really wanted to like Always Shine. It’s got all the necessary resources to put together a memorably eerie psychological horror picture, especially in its performances & its basic themes. It just falls flat so miserably in both its screenplay & editing choices that it’s difficult to get on its side. As frustrating as it must be for Takal to continually hear, the film is too reminiscent of Queen of Earth not to draw the comparison and, in all honesty, it often plays like an awful parody version of that far superior work. That’s not the only point of comparison that makes it look like a weak substitute for the genuine thing, either. Persona, an influence both films obviously owe a lot to, smartly jumbles its psychological break in a way that cannot be easily, neatly understood the same way Always Shine‘s can. The Neon Demon does a far better job filtering feminine jealousy & competition through an unrealistic art horror lens. Felt has a much firmer handle on the way feminist themes can be discussed openly & even viciously in a broken psyche narrative while still feeling like natural, human dialogue. Creep, Joshy, The One I Love, The Invitation, and The Overnight all top this near-miss in turning California wilderness locales into emotional hellscapes of isolation & hurt feelings. None of these movies’ successes dictate that Always Shine has no right to exist in the world as its own separate work of art. They just point to the various ways the film’s promising formula falls flat in an embarrassing way, Queen of Earth especially so.

-Brandon Ledet

My First Kiss and the People Involved (2016)



A grainy digital camera indie about a group of mental patients in a halfway home, you might be tempted to brush off My First Kiss and the People Involved as something that can easily be understood & forgotten within its opening minutes of lyrical daydreaming. It’s not the film you’re expecting. Surely, My First Kiss and the People Involved traffics in the standard indie drama empathy inherent to small scale films about systemic mental health care. However, it also mirrors the helplessness & delusion of its disenfranchised subjects by veering into the unexpected territory of a psychological horror. At times, the film’s tense paranoia & dread of sudden violence plays like the silent horror classic A Page of Madness by way of a classic Hitchcock thriller, which is not at all the expectation or precedent it sets in its more tender, but familiar first act.

Our window into the goings on of the halfway home is a wordless, listless patient named Sam. As she’s largely nonverbal & extremely sensitive to sensory overload, we specifically experience this world through her hands & singsong daydreams. The movie opens with Sam getting lost in small details: pinwheels, spider webs, flowers, magazine advertisements, television static. In a way she’s the world’s least reliable narrator, in that she doesn’t have the ability to narrate. We just watch her navigate a chaotic space in a daze, which is perfectly fine with the film’s early, minor events. Her quiet, easily-overloaded perspective adds an air of lyricism to her housemates’/fellow patients’ negotiations about movie night or living room masquerades or introduction to a cute rabbit as a household pet. Things get too intense when Sam starts to feel romantic stirrings for a fellow patient, though. That anxiety fully kicks into gear with her witnessing a possible murder, a traumatic event she can’t report or communicate to the outside world due to the limitations set by her particular condition.

Out-of-nowhere actor India Menuez is having a great year professionally, appearing in supporting roles in the two much-hyped indies White Girl & Nocturnal Animals. Her starring turn as Sam in My First Kiss and the People Involved offers a much quieter, tenderer showcase of her talents than those smaller roles are likely to, though. We experience the world through her physical touch & her internal paranoia. When a rabbit appears to speak or when a boy leans in for a too-much-too-soon intimacy we’re dazed in the same overwhelmed, disjointed mind frame. There’s something of a 90s indie movie vibe in My First Kiss’s more familiar aspects. The grainy digital haze, the Courtney Love vibes in its more tragic counselor and the ripped up & faded blue jeans all recall the era. Where a 90s work might’ve stopped at generating empathy for its vulnerable, fractured protagonist, however, this film pushes further into the paranoia of a psychological horror, forcing the audience to perceive the world through that vulnerable lens instead of merely pitying it. Menuez does a great job of anchoring the empathy in this way, bringing a light, but frustrated tenderness to a role that requires surgical precision to work. The film does its best to surprise & subvert expectations within the confines of its means & genre, but it’s Menuez’s performance that allows that subversion to hit with full, meaningful impact.

-Brandon Ledet