Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” and Deb Shoval’s “AWOL” have many things in common. For starters, both are films about a duo of women by female directors—the former a jagged psychological thriller about two actresses, the latter a bittersweet lesbian romance. Both female duos find themselves pushed to the edge by a domineering patriarchy, the former by the demanding and objectifying world of fashion and filmmaking, the latter by jealous boyfriends and heteronormative family members. Finally, they are both uniformly terrible.
But they’re terrible in distinctly different ways. “Always Shine” is the interesting kind of terrible, a terribleness borne of poor creative decisions and artistic miscalculations. The entire film is a rumination on the relationship between performance and performer, best demonstrated in our introduction to the two leads, the waifish and successful Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and the struggling and jealous Anna (Mackenzie Davis), where we literally see them give auditions (or what we think are auditions) in tight close-ups of their faces. After retreating to the proverbial cabin in the woods for a weekend, Anna’s envy festers into violent madness. Comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966) are inevitable, particularly in light of a scene where Beth and Anna literally switch characters as they rehearse a new script. The whole thing is too self-aware to be taken seriously—a repeated bit involves Beth summarizing a prospective future film as being full of red herrings—and seems to be trying too hard to be artistically “important.” (don’t think that I didn’t catch that split-second shot of a clapperboard, Mrs. Takal. You know the one.) It’s not a good film, but I’d be damned if I said I didn’t love every minute of it.
Stars: Mackenzie Davis, Caitlin FitzGerald and Lawrence Michael Levine
Directed by Sophia Takal
“AWOL” is the boring kind of terrible: utterly, completely boring and uninspired. Completely bereft of momentum, it staggers and stumbles its torturous way through an eighty five-minute run-time without offering anything creative or original. The film feels like an indie remake of Todd Haynes’s “Carol” (2015) with a young woman named Joey (Lola Kirke) falling in love with a married woman named Rayna (Breeda Wool) who lives with her controlling husband and children. Joey even has a quirky hat! The most bizarre part of “AWOL” is its unwillingness to regard Joey and Rayna as unsexual objects—they are almost never not having sex. They do it in barn lofts, they do it in bathtubs next to dead deer, they do it in a tent overlooking the town, they do it in the parking lot of a military recruiting office in broad daylight. Any chance for them to develop as human being with thoughts and emotions either gets shuffled to the side for monotonous melodrama—or more sex. I remember sitting in the theater watching “AWOL” and leaning over to my friend and colleague Evan Griffin from TheYoungFolks.com and asking about halfway through if the film was leaving any impression on him. He looked at me, sighed, shrugged, and turned back to the screen. By the end I found that I hadn’t taken any notes on “AWOL.” I literally didn’t have anything worth saying about it.
Stars Lola Kirke, Breeda Wool and Dale Soule
Directed by Deb Shoval
Always Shine Rating: 6/10
AWOL Rating: 4/10
Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257