Hitchcockian doubles from Hollywood’s lowest rungs retreat to Big Sur for a weekend of hiking, drinking and mutual torment in “Always Shine,” a psychological thriller that feels like “Persona” by way of “Single White Female.” With her confident second feature, director Sophia Takal (“Green”) takes on Tinseltown misogyny and the toxic rivalry between friends, but that’s mere prelude to a gonzo meta-fiction that deconstructs itself nearly to death.
Amid all the turmoil, Mackenzie Davis, the ascendant star of AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire,” pulls focus with a mesmerizing turn as a never-will-be actress and Caitlin FitzGerald is equally good as her passive-aggressive friend/doppelganger. “Always Shine” reps a gleaming showcase for their performances, but its overabundance of ideas presents a murkier commercial prospect.
Working from a script by Lawrence Michael Levine, Takal makes it immediately clear that while Davis and FitzGerald play struggling actresses, their own bonafides are beyond dispute. As Beth, FitzGerald weeps through an audition as a Final Girl-type in some backwoods slasher film, only to be met with the repeated disclaimer that the role will require “extensive nudity.” As Anna, Davis gets introduced through an Oscar reel monologue of her own, laying into a mechanic for making an unauthorized repair she doesn’t have the money to cover. He laments that she isn’t “a touch more ladylike.” And with that, a theme emerges.
How much misogynist culture accounts for the conflict between these two frenemies is an open question, but it certainly throws gas on the fire. There may have been a time when Beth and Anna were close, but their decision to spend a weekend together feels forced and obligatory, like a married couple trying one last getaway before inking the divorce papers.
In a secluded home on the cliffs of Big Sur, the two sip wine and reminisce, but it isn’t long before a series of perceived slights and passive-aggressive jibes cause hidden resentments to bubble to the surface. News of Beth locking down the lead role in a crummy horror movie sends Anna into a fit of professional jealousy, but her pettiness is subtly matched by Beth’s quiet refusal to help her friend when given the opportunity.
In one bravura piece of acting, Anna lashes out at Beth for taking another role that calls for nudity (“You ever feel like a whore?”) and belittles her by running lines from the horror script. After declaring Beth’s readings weak, Anna shows her how she’d play the same role, and the tension between them becomes electric. Davis simultaneously wills the hacky dialogue to life and suggests Anna’s pathological fury over her friend’s modicum of success, which is like some cosmic injustice she needs to right. Her cruelty is breathtaking, rivaled only by Beth’s acts of subterfuge.
When “Always Shine” takes a turn toward the metaphysical and meta-textual, however, Takal and Levine commit their own acts of self-sabotage. What was once a gripping psychological thriller becomes a “psychological thriller” in quotes, and the human relationship they’d so carefully established between Beth and Anna turns into a flimsy construct. The obvious model for “Always Shine” is Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona,” which struck a balance between the intensity of a typical Bergman chamber piece and New European cinema at its most abstract. Takal throws a lot of effects against the wall — flash cuts, confused identities, the avant-garde kinks of Michael Montes’ score — but few of them stick.
Once a slate for “Always Shine” pops up in the middle of the action, the film has officially folded its central relationship into a more theoretical design. It’s an inadvertent argument for the virtues of convention: Losing characters as carefully sketched and beautifully performed as Beth and Anna to a more experimental agenda is a deep sacrifice from which the pic never recovers.