Tag Archives: Miranda July

CAPSULE: MADELINE’S MADELINE (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, 

PLOT: A troubled 16-year old girl escapes her neurotic home life by immersing herself in an experimental theater troupe.

Still from Madleine's Madeline (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Madeline is a promising and passionate shot across the bow of the timid indie drama scene, a collection of typical film festival narrative preoccupations—dysfunctional family dynamics, reflective meditations on the trials of the working artist—blurred by an experimental film lens. But for all its oddball virtues, it’s of limited appeal, and I suspect it finds more favor with dramaheads looking for a weird-ish diversion from the ordinary than with weirdophiles looking for a little drama.

COMMENTS: Josephine Decker has been blipping on the edges of our radar here at 366, with two arty/weird low-budget erotic films (the lesbian-themed Butter on the Latch and randy farmhand tale Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) that we didn’t have the opportunity to check out, as well as an installment in the dream anthology collective:unconscious that we did. Madeline’s Madeline, her Sundance-selected third feature film, is her breakout project, a confirmation that our interest was warranted.

Madeline’s Madeline paints a portrait of three women. Madeline is a 16-year old with a natural gift for acting, an increasing impatience with her virginity, and a slowly-disclosed history of mental illness. She misbehaves like a normal teenager—sometimes going too far—but the seriousness of her condition is also somewhat suspect, since it’s mainly suggested by her neurotic mother Regina, who comes off as a bit of a hysterical hypochondriac. Naturally, these two clash. Madeline’s awkward attempts at erotic expression (she shows a potential beau her departed father’s VHS porn collection) are more frustrating than fulfilling, but the girl finds meaning in her work with an experimental theater troupe—the type of outfit that performs endless improvisations where the cast pretends to be cats or sea turtles or explores dream work and never gets around to rehearsing an actual play. Director Evangeline, our third female character, is working on a script to feature Madeline, but it never develops due to her endless digressions and exercises—experiments that sometimes become uncomfortably intimate. Madeline sees Evangeline as the mother she wished she had—and her feelings might be returned—but their relationship is complicated by mutual jealousy, and by Evangeline’s egotism and subtle authoritarianism. If she thinks she can constrain a force of nature like Madeline, however, the director is sadly mistaken: the teen  proves advanced beyond her years at psychological manipulation.

The briefly outlined story above  is delivered in a series of vignettes; some deliberately confusing, while others wouldn’t seem out of place in Ladybird. The scenes are often broken up by disorienting, psychotic montages: the lens wavers in and out of focus, shot from odd angles while the camera focuses on chins or foreheads or forks during conversations. The score is mostly a capella chanting of the tribal variety; very Greenwich Villagey, just like Evangeline’s bohemian brand of performance art theater. The entire procedure develops into a kind of Cubist filmmaking: individual scenes depict facets of the multilayered story, with details often obscured or muddled, but the whole reveals a complete portrait of its subject, seen from multiple angles. The ending is a psychedelic free-for-all encapsulating Madeline’s rebellion against Evangeline’s artistic authority: the girl stages a mutiny and turns rehearsal into an avant-garde haunted house and choreographed manifesto of independence.

Exemplary acting from the primary trio gives Madeline a leg up on similar experiments. July pushes her eccentric persona in a new, less precious direction. Parker’s character is far more complex than she first appears: the troupe defers to her as its de facto leader, but she’s more dilettante than genius, and her insecurities gradually reveal weaknesses that Madeline instinctively exploits. We never get a handle on which of the three women is actually the craziest—although Madeline at least had the excuse of youth and adolescent turmoil to soften her madness. 19-year old Helena Howard—who plays everything from a confused teen to a kitty cat to her own mother—makes everything watchable, grounding the sometimes flighty project and showing breakout star potential. Unfortunately, this experimental movie is destined to be little-seen, but producers and casting directors will take note of Howard. Like Madeline, her talent is too great to confine itself to underground niche movies: expect to see her cast in bigger projects soon. But we hope she’ll remember, and maybe even return to, her weird, arty roots years from now when she’s a big star.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The opening of the film tells us that what we are about to watch is just a metaphor, not the actual thing. That comes up several times the weirder things get… Madeline’s Madeline was not for me but I’m sure there’s someone out there for it.”–Fred Topel, We Live Entertainment

CAPSULE: ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: John Hawkes, Miranda July, Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff

PLOT: A cross-section of humanity, led by a shoe salesman and an aspiring performance artist, struggles to make connections in a world dominated by digital barriers to humanity.

Still from Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the weirdness here comes from the unusual situations that seemingly ordinary people find (or put) themselves in. Ultimately, the outrageousness of some of July’s premises are unexpected and threaten propriety, but they’re not really weird in and of themselves.

COMMENTS: Richard and Christine walk down a street; at the end, they will part company to go separate ways to their cars. But they can see the end coming, and the walk becomes much more. One of them views the stroll as a surrogate first date; the other sees it as an entire relationship encapsulated in these few fleeting minutes. The stakes are high, but leavened with artifice. It’s a meet-cute and a relationship-cute all in one.

July is an artist, so there are plenty of moments like this in her debut feature. In fact, Me and You and Everyone We Know (and that’s the last time I’ll type out the whole title) is a movie of moments, and each of those moments is carefully observed. A magic trick with a flaming hand, the pending demise of a goldfish, an explanation for an inspirational t-shirt… these bits and more are treated with great importance and gravity. Your answer to the question of whether films need to spend more time exploring the inner lives of the characters will ultimately determine whether you view this as unusually fulfilling or as tedious and self-indulgent.

In the spirit of filmmakers like or , everyone is connected in Everyone We Know, but no one can connect. In particular, the lead roles stand as stark opposites in their relation to the world around them. Hawkes’ Richard clearly wants connection, but has been so unsuccessful in making it happen that he’s essentially written it off. July’s Christine, meanwhile, is determined to reach out to others, and is willing to bypass conventional norms to make it happen. She creates artwork that places herself in front of invented throngs of attentive viewers or among people she barely knows; she ferries the elderly around town in a personal driving service, and facilitates a romance for one of her patrons; she even accosts Richard’s ex in a department store and persuades her to buy a picture frame. She’s essentially made the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into the star of the movie, instead than a construct to facilitate a hero’s awakening. We see her desperation as pure, but it’s also not surprising that she comes across as inappropriate, even oppressive, in her determination to break through to others.

Interestingly, while the central romance is viewed purely through emotional need, most of the people in their orbit see love exclusively through the prism of sex, and that’s where the film plays with surprising and incendiary material. A man sidesteps laws about pedophilia by posting his dirty thoughts on signs he hangs in his window. Two teenage girls attempt to prove their maturity by performing oral sex on a neighborhood boy they don’t even much like. In the most shocking interlude, that same boy’s much younger brother unwittingly engages in a corprophilic chatroom session and then arranges an assignation with his online partner. At every step, the same question arises: “Are they really going to go there?” July absolutely is going to go there, because she wants to show how inarguably deluded these people are, mistaking kink for being grown-up, crudeness for connection.

It’s tempting to say Me and You features adults acting like children and children acting like adults, but that undersells the dangerous behavior everyone finds themselves engaging in. These are all children, some chronologically, all emotionally. July sees a way for all them to grow up, but it’s something they’re going to have to do together. As the film closes, some of them are going to try, and from July’s perspective, that’s cause for hope.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In an age of formula films, writer/director/actor Miranda July has discovered the priceless value of people – ordinary people who behave in a magnificently bizarre fashion. Yet every single one of them in Me and You and Everyone We Know seems highly credible, more real than imagined. A clever screenwriter and inspired director, July takes us places no other filmmaker has ever visited.” – Bruce Feld, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead”. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE FUTURE (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Miranda July

FEATURING: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Isabella Acres

PLOT: A thirtysomething couple decides to adopt a sick cat in one month, during which time they quit their jobs and try to find ways to make their lives more satisfying. The cat (named Paw-Paw) narrates part of the story from her veterinary hospital cage.


WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Populated with just enough flights of fancy to warrant “eccentric” and offering a surprisingly bleak and realistic look at two people on the brink of nervous breakdown while in a crumbling relationship, The Future just isn’t strange enough for a spot on the List.

COMMENTS: Though it opens with the creepy, nasally voice-over of Paw-Paw the cat detailing its rescue by a kind couple, The Future spends most of its time with Sophie (July) and Jason (Linklater).  She is an “overqualified” dance teacher for young girls, he works from home accepting tech support calls.  When they decide to adopt a sick cat, their future spreads before them as nothing but caring for it and then reaching old age after it dies.  Sophie tries to motivate herself to make online dance videos but instead finds solace in an affair with a friendly sign-maker.  Jason becomes “open to everything,” accepting a volunteer position with an environmental group and befriending an elderly pack rat.  As Paw-Paw waits patiently, her soon-to-be owners flounder in the face of self-fulfillment with anxiety-ridden freakouts.

Known in the film world for her quirk-filled debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, writer and performance artist Miranda July is developing definite trademarks.  She once again employs experimental voice-over and somewhat stilted scripting for a portrait of white middle-class romance, but this time her characters are more realized and the emotions more focused.  As Sophie and Jason claw their way through individual bouts of near-insanity, a surprisingly touching story unfolds.  For the most part we are looking at this relationship from the outside in, seeing these characters more often apart than together.  Sophie’s uncertain relationship with sign-maker Marshall and Jason’s curious friendship with elderly chatterbox Joe offer insights unseen in their actual interactions with one another.

This is uncharacteristic for me but I actually found most of the “weirder” parts detrimental to the film overall.  The creepy cat narration and puppet paws feel irrelevant and clashing—it doesn’t move the story forward and it doesn’t increase my sympathy for the cat or the couple.  Sophie’s suddenly animated t-shirt also feels out of the blue.  The best offbeat technique is employed towards the end, when Jason literally stops time so he can sort out his feelings about Sophie’s infidelity, and ends up in a sad conversation with the moon.  It’s a neat trick and sets forth an interesting structure for that segment of the film, and serves to highlight Hamish Linklater—an actor often set in supporting roles—as a performer.

There’s a good amount of twee baggage weighing down The Future.  Some of July’s little touches of style and wry humor are fun, but many drag the focus away from the central story unnecessarily.  The writing and characterization just aren’t tight enough.  It is at times a beautiful and heartbreaking film, and even quite funny at others, but viewers need to wade through a lot of excess in order to hit upon the most effective points.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘The Future,’ July’s coy and precious new film, is just oddball enough to be interesting, if not good.” –Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor (contemporaneous)