Feminism Double Feature – In a World…/Always Shine

With the Women’s March 4 Justice happening today in Australia, it’s a good time to cover a couple of films which address the inequalities and hypocrisies experienced by women in the modern world. Lake Bell uses comedy to explore issues of employment opportunity, while Sophia Takal draws on her experiences in Hollywood to reflect on the different standards of behaviour applied to men and women.

In a World… (2013) is a comedy about the mini-industry responsible for the voice-over narration on movie trailers. The title serves a double purpose, referring both to the favourite catchphrase of industry legend Don LaFontaine (who died in 2008), as well as to the insular and almost exclusively male world of trailer voice-over artistes. Writer/director/star Lake Bell uses LaFontaine’s recent death as the inciting incident for her plot, as the old guard of the voice-over industry begin their manoeuvring to become the new “voice-over king”.

Carol Solomon (Lake Bell) is an underworked vocal coach, seen early on at a dialogue looping session as she helps Eva Longoria to sound more authentic as the wife of a British crime boss. Carol is barely able to make enough money to support herself while living rent-free in her father’s house – until he decides to kick her out so his girlfriend (who is a year younger than Carol) can move in. Her father – Sam Sotto (Fred Melamed) – is about to receive a life-time achievement award for his work in the voice-over field, but persistently treats his daughter’s aspirations to enter that world with nothing but contempt. Although he likely views his attempts to dissuade her as simply being a realistic assessment of industry opportunities, he pays so little attention to either of his daughters that he’s incapable of seeing how his constant negativity has contributed to her inability to build a more successful career.

When word gets around that the upcoming movie franchise “The Amazon Games” intends to revive the “In a world…” catchphrase, competition is fierce. Sam, preparing to retire while he’s at the top of his game, removes himself from the running in favour of his protege Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) – but when laryngitis prevents Gustav from attending the temp track recording, studio engineer (and Carol’s hapless would-be boyfriend) Louis (Demetri Martin) accepts Carol’s offer to record her own voice-over. Nobody is more surprised than Carol when producer Katherine Huling offers her the job, effectively kickstarting her career as more job offers start coming in. Keeping her newfound success a secret from her father at first, her eventual revelation of the offer backfires massively – he refuses to accept that she’s telling the truth, berates her for her “unrealistic” expectations, then turns around and calls the producer behind her back to say that he’s now available, resulting in the withdrawal of her guaranteed offer and putting her into direct competition with her father.

Lake Bell is no stranger to the world of voice-over, entering the field as the sister of the main character in the video game Prototype (2009). After a supporting role in Shrek Forever After (2010), she’s gone on to higher profile voice-work in Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018) and Harley Quinn (2019-20). For In a World… she’s chosen to surround herself with actors who have a solid comedy pedigree, successfully working their different comedic styles into the fabric of the film without undermining the dramatic elements. The most enjoyable performances are from Carol and Louis’ co-workers at the voice recording studio: Nick Offerman provides sardonic advice to Louis on his dating life; Tig Notaro is her typical deadpan self; and Stephanie Allynne is hilarious as the studio receptionist who presents as an airhead but hides some solid fantasy epic fangirl geekery under her Hollywood exterior. Tallulah Riley (St Trinian’s, The Boat That Rocked) makes a small but welcome appearance as a neighbour, and Cameron Diaz has an uncredited cameo as one of the stars of “The Amazon Games”, but the actor who makes the biggest impression is Geena Davis as the high-powered film producer with a feminist agenda.

Michaela Watkins and Rob Corddry are also on hand as Carol’s more successful sister and brother-in-law, who provide her with somewhere to live after she’s kicked out by her father. Although Bell gives them their own subplot, introducing some marital discord which is resolved by the end, the material doesn’t really fit with the wider themes of the film, feeling more like padding to stretch the material to feature-length. More successful is the running joke of Carol running into women with squeaky baby doll voices – although initially played for laughs, her increasing level of engagement with these women leads her to set up a vocal coach service for professional women who find themselves stymied in their career progression because people assume from their voices that they must be stupid. Bell also gives Sam’s young girlfriend Jamie (Alexandra Holden) a greater dignity than a character in her role would normally be allowed – although his daughters assume the worst of her, she makes real efforts to bring them together as a family and is finally seen to come into her own when she berates Sam for his bad behaviour towards his daughters.

Always Shine (2016) opens confrontingly with a full-screen headshot of a distraught Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) directly addressing the camera, making overtly sexual overtures to her unidentified assailant in exchange for her life. She pauses and becomes uncertain after toying with the strap of her dress, at which point the babble of male voices responding to her makes it clear that this is an audition. The camera remains fixed on Beth’s face as we hear the men discuss her role in the film, making sure that she’s aware that there are extensive protracted nude scenes. They go on and on about women who commit to a role but baulk at nudity when on set, constantly referring to her as “sweetheart” or similar unearned pleasantries implying a close personal connection. Their attempts to reassure her about the extensive nudity required never acknowledge the vulnerability that a woman acting out tense scenes of sexual threat in the wilderness with a largely male crew might experience – their entire strategy of assurance rests on the single premise: “Don’t worry, we’ll make you look pretty.”

Our introduction to Anna (Mackenzie Davis) is identically shot. Anna is immediately seen to be much more brash and confrontational than Beth as she launches into a dispute with the mechanic who has repaired her car. She’s angry that the mechanic has done additional (poorly justified and most likely unnecessary) work not mentioned in the original quote, leaving her with a charge for an additional $300 she can’t afford. The mechanic is clearly in the wrong but keeps attempting to weasel out of his responsibility, constantly using the word “if” in an attempt to cast doubt on her recollections and eventually making the unlikely claim that he would have been prepared to come to some sort of accommodation about the costs if she hadn’t been so aggressive in calling out his chicanery. The identical framing of the two sequences implies that Anna is also auditioning for a part, but the final switch to a wide shot reveals that the exchange was real.

Beth and Anna are long-term friends whose relationship has begun to show the strain of the disparities in their comparative career success. Beth is an actress on the rise, having made her way up through beer commercials to dodgy serial killer thrillers with a nudity quotient. The only thing that distinguishes her latest role is that this time she’s the lead – a position for which the male filmmakers, her female agent, and her friend Anna all believe she should be grateful. While this does indicate an upward trajectory for her career, Beth is clearly uncomfortable with the material and her performance in the opening scene feels very much like a shy and self-deprecating woman being forced to be complicit in her own reduction to a submissive blank slate reflecting projected male fantasies of control. Although her boyfriend does his best to be supportive of her career, he finds it difficult to understand that she shares his discomfort with her on-screen nudity, not truly comprehending that turning down such roles would likely leave her without a career. She is acutely aware that Anna is a more talented actress and attributes her own success to having the right look at the right time.

Anna’s acting career has been far less successful, still reliant on being cast in experimental student films which lack the budget to pay their performers. Her forthright personality has led to her being labelled as pushy and aggressive, almost certainly hobbling her career progression, despite it being indistinguishable from the behaviour displayed by many of the men in the film. When Beth and Anna go away for a girls’ weekend in Big Sur, the blatant difference in the way they are treated by others begins to bring Anna’s simmering resentments to the fore. A woman asks Beth for her autograph and treats Anna as an unimportant adjunct who is expected to take a photo of the two of them. An older man flirting with Anna quickly cools when she begins to ask probing questions about his activities at a men’s retreat, leading to her accusation that he wouldn’t have the same problem with a man asking similar questions of a woman. His eyes follow Beth when she gets up to leave the table and he quickly makes his excuses to Anna before seeking out Beth (with whom he hasn’t exchanged a single word) and pressuring her into giving him her phone number – an exchange witnessed by Anna, who cries herself to sleep. This scene is skilfully flipped later in the film, when Jesse (played by screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine) asks probing questions of a shy woman who gradually releases more and more self-deprecating chunks of personal information without asking him anything, a dynamic which clearly fuels his interest in her.

Caitlin FitzGerald and Mackenzie Davis are excellent in the lead roles and never fail to impress. FitzGerald (Masters of Sex, The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot) provides a delicately layered portrayal of an actress who finds herself trapped within roles defined by men, letting out glimpses of the person trapped inside which are plausibly there to be seen by the observant but are not even admitted to be there by her increasingly estranged friend. Davis (Halt and Catch Fire, Terminator: Dark Fate) captures the righteous anger of a woman constantly thrust up against hypocritically gendered standards of behaviour and penalised as a result, whose slowly simmering frustration becomes misdirected against the friend she believes has everything she wants. After a significant event roughly an hour into the film which would constitute a massive spoiler, we get a chance to admire the actresses’ versatility as they exchange clothing and personalities, as if the two complementary sides of a balanced individual had flipped. Among the supporting cast, I have to give a quick shout-out to Jane Adams (Twin Peaks: The Return, She Dies Tomorrow), who has a small role near the end, simply because I always find her presence in a film delightful.

Director Sophia Takal displays a masterful grasp of the material and chooses her techniques carefully to maximum effect. She has full confidence in the abilities of her actors, willing to allow her leads the space to play out significant scenes without unnecessarily cross-cutting between them. Certain shots are carefully crafted to draw parallels between Anna and Beth, blurring the lines between them in scenes shot from behind which can make it unclear which of the two characters we’re seeing. Takal reserves her use of flashier techniques for transitional sequences, rapidly edited montages incorporating brief flash-forwards which provide tantalising hints of darker undercurrents to otherwise innocuous scenes. Takal’s work with editor Zach Clark on these sequences made a visceral impression on me, filling me with the immediate urge to see more of her work. Her feminist reimagination of the female-centred 1974 slasher horror movie Black Christmas (2019) (reviewed here) was an unexpected delight, if poorly received – something which is reflected in an appalling manner in her IMDb bio, which includes this telling sentence: “She recently collaborated with highly esteemed horror and Sci-Fi Producer and filmmaker Jason Blum on recent productions “In The Dark” and a “third” Black Christmas film, which was such a critical and commercial disaster that it essentially ended her directing career.” It’s difficult to avoid noticing, especially after viewing a film about the double standards applied to women, that this section of her bio begins by elevating the status of the male producer and ends by massively overstating the negative reception of her film, attributing all of the blame to her and declaring her career as a director to be dead. I’m delighted to be able to state that this obituary for her career is premature, as she has currently has two directorial projects in the pipeline, one of which is for Netflix.

Takal’s husband Lawrence Michael Levine wrote the screenplay for Always Shine in response to some of the issues with which she was struggling, both as an actress and as a neophyte director coming off her writing/directing debut feature Green (2011). Levine has also written and directed four features, most recently last year’s similarly themed film festival hit Black Bear (2020), which received rave reviews for its central performance by Aubrey Plaza. I wasn’t able to make room for Black Bear in my own festival viewing, but from what I’ve seen and read it would make for an excellent double feature with Always Shine.

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