“If you just let yourself exist and don’t try to be anything other than who you are,” explains Sophia Takal, “that’s when you can find peace and that’s when you can connect with the world.”
The director speaks so earnestly that it is hard not to divulge your deepest secrets to her. It is exactly this openness and honesty that created the foundation for her second feature film, Always Shine. “I like to think about approaching a story that I want to tell by identifying something within myself that I feel ashamed of,” the director discloses. “It was my feeling of not fitting into the traditional idea of femininity that drove me to make this film.” Takal started having in-depth conversations with other women about the female space and the emotions of jealousy and shame. She found the women had similar feelings to her own, and reaffirmed her need to bring the conversation to the screen.
Takal is no stranger to filmmaking. She acted for many years before taking a turn writing, directing, and starring in her film Green. Where Green was a small undertaking that relied mostly on improvisation both on and off the camera, Almost Shine is more deliberate. “I really thought about how I wanted to position the movie,” explains Takal, who solely directed the new film. “I always knew Always Shine would have a genre element; [I wanted it to] be entertaining.” Based off her ideas and conversations, Takal’s husband Lawrence Michael Levine, who has a small role in the film, wrote the screenplay with elements of horror and psychological thrillers in mind. The movie delivers.
The film follows two friends, both actresses, as they roadtrip from urban Los Angeles to rural and isolated Big Sur, California. Caitlin FitzGerald, of Masters of Sex fame, plays Beth, a soft-spoken, delicate character who has reached success in her acting career. Opposite, Mackenzie Davis, who won Tribeca’s best actress award for the film, plays Anna, who is brash and struggling. Quiet versus loud, the characters play out the dichotomy of certain female identities and the jealousy felt between women within those roles. The tension between the characters starts before they even share the screen, and it builds continuously throughout the film before turning strange and hateful—and very creepy.
The subject matter lives very close to home for Takal. “Beth is my idea of what I think I’m supposed to be and Anna is more who I am,” says Takal. “I’ve felt throughout my life this idea that I’m supposed to be perfect, that I’m supposed to look a particular way, and behave a particular way and if I don’t behave or look that way, I’m a failure.” The idea of failure resides in Anna, who Takal based on herself. Anna desires to be Beth, the image of perfection: Beth is demure and meek, the personification of society’s idea of feminine, while Anna is not perfect, but opinionated and reckless. Conditioned by the world to fit into a box, Anna and her jealousy feels natural, real, and is overwhelmingly palpable on screen. “People are often ashamed of how jealousy feels; it’s an ugly feeling,” Takal explains. “But the more that you suppress it, the stronger hold it has on your internal life.” It’s Anna’s suppression that destroys her, turning her perverse and dangerous.
One of last images, and Takal’s favorite, shows Anna lying by herself in clovers, awakening to her reality. “I really want the audience to think about how they are culpable in demanding that women behave a certain way,” Takal says of the takeaway of the film. “I want to start a dialogue about what it even means to be a woman.” By the end of the movie, Takal wants the female audience to know that it’s okay to be a failure of a woman, that there isn’t even the possibility to be a failure of a woman. The film closes with Anna, looking straight into the camera as if saying, “This is who I am.” She finds her peace, and finally reconciles and becomes responsible for who she is.