DIRECTED BY: Josephine Decker
FEATURING: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
PLOT: A troubled 16-year old girl escapes her neurotic home life by immersing herself in an experimental theater troupe.
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