Sophia Takal’s Always Shine is an unwavering slice of psychological horror, a film that crafts a tense atmosphere through the delusions of a damaged mind—the power of obsession and jealousy drive the narrative to a devastating conclusion, all of which comes to life through Mackenzie Davis’ heartbreaking performance. In it, best friends Anna and Beth take a weekend trip to Big Sur, hopeful to re-establish a bond broken by years of competition and resentment.
One of the things that surprised me about Takal’s film is the way she blends the real with the surreal—the editing in the film is almost otherworldly, creating a psychotropic atmosphere that comes and goes when you least expect it. But it’s also so much more than just a few scenes spliced together in trippy detail—it actually mirrors the very mind of Anna, whose jealousy of Beth is so overwhelming that it rattles her subconscious. It’s her marred mind that comes undone throughout the film, and Always Shine is pieced together in an almost nightmare-like fashion as a way to explore what’s going on in Anna’s head.
But the thing about Anna—played by the brilliant Mackenzie Davis—is that she’s dropped into this world completely on edge; right from the beginning there’s just something off about her character, like there’s something evil boiling underneath all of that anger and emotion. And really, a lot of that works because of just how good Davis is in the movie—she’s intense and terrifying in a way that we don’t see very often in horror movies because it isn’t forced… it just feels real. For my money, Davis turns in the best performance in a horror movie this year.
Her performance is also what makes Always Shine actually feel like a horror film, too, because otherwise the horror is actually very understated—it takes a while for the story to lean into the horror, taking its time to establish the toll that Anna’s jealousy is taking on her. It’s very much a slow-burn, but what makes it work is Takal’s patience in establishing the world around her characters—Anna is a ticking time bomb that’s being pushed closer and closer to the edge, so the film plays with that and does a great job of building tension through it.
And once it finally does go over the edge, it doesn’t disappoint. All of that tension finally breaks along with Anna’s mind and her relationship with Beth. From there the film actually adds a very unexpected and wholly sinister wrinkle to the narrative, further realizing the horror of Anna’s damaged mind. But the one thing holding Always Shine back was that it’s ending is too abrupt, leaving more questions than answers. A lot of the movie is ambiguous and left to the viewer’s imagination, so I can see why Takal chose to end the film this way, but for me it just didn’t quite hit the way that I think it could have—all of that wonderfully built tension needed a place to go, to end with the kind of bang that reflected Anna’s intensity throughout the film, but instead it just kind of fizzles out.
That said, Always Shine is without a doubt a must-see thanks Mackenzie Davis’ performance, which is absolutely haunting, and the way her character comes to life in Takal’s obsession-driven world is just as terrifying as it is tragic.