At the risk of succumbing to the Sundance hype atmosphere, writer/director Josephine Decker may be offering a new form of altered cinematic consciousness with Madeline’s Madeline. Rather than the fugue of any drug, the illogic of a dream, the uncertainty of a nightmare or the strange margins between these states, the film evokes the ambiguous realities of living with mental illness. It further ties this flexible mindscape to the identity-dissolving potential of performance and creating art. The result is a film which fuzzes the boundaries between the real and the unreal in a way that’s not quite like any preexisting movie example that descriptor may call to mind.
Madeline (Helena Howard) is a teenager in high tension with her mother (Miranda July) since her recent release from a mental facility. Her main escape is a Brooklyn experimental theater group run by Evangeline (Molly Parker), who is enraptured by Madeline’s full-bodied participation in their exercises and unique imagination. At first appearing to be an offbeat indie variation on the stock “loving teacher helps out a troubled teen” plot, Madeline’s Madeline instead unspools Evangeline’s relationship with the young girl as creepily predatory. Race isn’t outright addressed many times, but it underlines the interactions between the biracial Madeline and her white mother and would-be mentor.
The movie is shot entirely from Madeline’s perspective, with cinematographer Ashley Connor’s eye rarely entering deep focus and even less often staying still. There is never a moment when the viewer does not feel entirely within this single, subjective experience. Madeline roves, sometimes speaking with friends on entirely “normal” terms and other times acting like a cat around strangers. She’s alternately animated and agitated, and the light around her shimmers and fades in the way your vision frizzes when your heart beats too fast. The film freely transitions between events that are probably real, things that are probably imagined and moments that aren’t easy to identify as either (or which may be real things overlaid with hallucinations, or fantasies with real life attempting to intrude).
The subjectivity becomes more frantic as Evangeline encourages Madeline to put more of her own experiences into her acting exercises, and in turn develops the troupe’s upcoming “collaborative” production to focus entirely on Madeline. Eventually, Madeline is reenacting fights with her mother in practice and trying on various “roles” in everyday interactions. (In one cringeworthy scene, she plays the part of teenage sexpot for Evangeline’s extraordinarily discomfited husband.) At this point, what is and isn’t real is immaterial, because how Madeline uses her art to navigate her relationships with the wider world is what’s important.
Parker turns in a brilliantly subtle performance, a psychic vampire disguised as a hipster earth mother. Her smile is simultaneously warmly sincere and simmering with overeager passion for other people’s personal matters. (When Madeline confides that her mom clumsily tried to have “the sex talk” with her, Evangeline immediately crows this out to the whole group.) July, who has a specialty of sorts in playing people who have difficulty elucidating inner pain (and does it again here), frazzles herself trying to negotiate calm with someone whose brain is working on an entirely different plane. Her eyes radiate simultaneous fear of and for her troubled black daughter, looking at her as if she’s a mile away and receding further even when she’s next to her in the car. But Howard is the center, inside and outside of the movie, immediately a tremendous talent to watch. All of this works because she can change her mood, poise or seemingly entire mode of being in the space between seconds.
Like Evangeline’s theater pieces, Madeline’s Madeline was developed out of collaboration between Decker, the actors and the crew, adding another layer of subtext to the film. This story of a white woman claiming a young black woman’s ideas for herself is itself the creation of a group led by a white woman and centered around a young black woman. Art and creation may guide one’s way through a confusing world, but there are consequences to creation, and prices to pay for the stories you take. This is a movie you can be provoked by and immersed in without ever quite staking a definitive “take” on it. It culminates in a rapturous extended sequence in which Madeline seizes her story for itself, a freewheeling journey through a performance which feels like one shot despite the many edits. This is something new. Weird, unsettling, funny and new. That is not common.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.