Teenage girl is having an art attack in theatrical indie
Madeline's Madeline (2018)
Directed by Josephine Decker
Cast: Molly Parker, Miranda July
Our twice-namedropped titular character (rawly assayed by newcomer Helena Howard) is a 16-year-old biracial New Yorker. Young Madeline is an outsider at school and troubled at home thanks to an overly protective single mother (famed indie actress/filmmaker Miranda July). Brittle mom looks like she’s eternally on the verge of melting down and depressive daughter is taking meds to prevent unspecified “incidents.” Dad, for his part, is conspicuously absent.
Madeline’s sole solace seems to come at an improvisational acting class led by touchy-feely theatrical guru Evangeline (the always-welcome Molly Parker from The Center of the World and “Deadwood”). Madeline excels at the class’ deep-dive psychological mumbo-jumbo and avant garde physical exercises, possibly because she can easily lose herself in the fantasy. “Are you a sea turtle, or are you a woman acting like a sea turtle?” probes Evangeline, pretentiously.
A questionable and self-absorbed mentor at best, Evangeline keeps pushing the teenage actor to pull from her personal life, to exploit her own emotions on stage and to plunder her fractured familial relations for inspiration. Before long, our gal is spilling family secrets in he name of “art.” Inspired by her prize pupil’s natural talent or youthful honesty or growing mental illness, Evangeline starts to push the bounds of acting into strange new territories. Over the course of the film, Evangeline’s big upcoming stage play (some silliness involving prison and pig masks and interpretive dance) keeps evolving. By the end, it has morphed into a play about a girl named Madeline (played by Madeline) and the troubled relationship she has with her mother (played by her mother).
“Is this a metaphor?” characters keep asking one another, conspicuously, throughout the film. Sometimes the question meets with confirmation, other times with denial. So is Decker’s movie just one big metaphor as well? Is Madeline improvising her way through a disjointed and incomprehensible play, or is she distancing herself from her own troubled life by pretending she’s only practicing for a play? Or could it simply be that Evangeline is exploiting her student’s fragile mental state for the sake of art? Whose story is this anyway? It’s in this tricky mental in-between state that Madeline’s Madeline prefers to meander. Is Madeline’s Madeline an incisive criticism of pretentious art, or is it just more pretentious art for the pile? Not everyone will take the film’s bait and play along. But to the right audience member, this is some radical, head-trippy psychodrama.
Decker—whose résumé is filled with even more obscure, arty enterprises (Collective: Unconscious, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely)—shoots in intense, in-your-face close-ups. Combined with her handheld camera’s shallow range of focus, this results in a parade of fuzzy, hazy, dreamlike images. These expressionistic sequences are stitched together with some frenetic editing—all of it mirroring Madeline’s crumbling, distracted mind state. We’re all actors, the film seems to imply, acting as ourselves. Except for actual actors, who are acting like ... um. Sorry, I got lost there.
Decker doesn’t accomplish anything here that plenty of avant-garde filmmakers didn’t already work out extensively back in the ’60s. But her commitment to the cause is evident. With its experimental narrative, woozy cinematography and profusion of animal masks, Madeline’s Madeline plays out like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan crossed with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona crossed with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Head-scratching and humorless, arty and dense, unconventional and occasionally explosive, this theatrical dose of Stendhal syndrome by proxy is the indie film equivalent of an off-Broadway play.