by Ken Bakely
Operating with an unbridled energy that most movies can only dream of, Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a wild burst of ingenuity. That its ideas may sometimes feel a little underexpressed or malformed also strengthens its resolve as a marvelous venture of risk-taking. Decker guides the proceedings with the spirit of an artist experimenting before us in real time. It makes sense that the action would be based around an experimental theatre troupe, and she would cast in the lead role a performer making her screen debut (Helena Howard).
Decker finds a true talent in Howard, who takes the titular Madeline – a driven teenage girl who hones her craft in the troupe, under the direction of group leader Evangeline (Molly Parker) – and creates an astonishing portrait from what little information we’re given about the character. From Madeline’s strong connection to her art, to her struggles with mental illness, to her expected adolescent rebellion, to her difficult relationship with her mother, Regina, (Miranda July), Howard and Decker dive deep into the character’s psyche. They take us to a world where the performative nature of her actions and words manipulate the film’s relationship with reality and fantasy, forming an admirably ambitious meditation on perspective.
The most daring decision made is to just let the film be what it is. Madeline’s Madeline may feel as if it leaves some ideas dangling or simply unattended to, but perhaps it’s a side effect of Decker’s otherwise refreshing choice not to overcontextualize. Everything Madeline does, whether it be a simple conversation with Regina or her most fiery work for the stage, is presented as another way for us to observe her talents, vulnerabilities, and passions. Her increased obsession with the theatre group is evidence of her quest for a place where her troubles are but another equally-sized obstacle to transform into something she can create.
For the entire movie to also live in that same headspace is a tremendous leap of faith on Decker’s part, both for finding an audience who can accept that permanent denial of objectivity, and allotting Howard so much control in setting that mood. The impreciseness of her universe’s fact-fiction divide increases throughout. By the time we reach the ending – a spectacularly heavy explosion of emotional release, imaginative fury, and the complete breakdown of barriers between what can and cannot be a performance space – we’ve long stopped trying to apply any rigid parameters to anything. Because Madeline’s Madeline is constantly working to reshape our expectations and reactions, it’s only at the very end that we can even begin to ponder what we’ve seen. Mirroring the plot’s recurring theme of Madeline seeking true autonomy over her life and work – separated from Regina’s control of the former and Evangeline’s assessment of the latter – the movie’s very existence is a meta statement on its quest to operate on its own terms. Decker’s bold, colorful direction is intimately responsive to Howard’s stellar performance, and vice versa.
Such a dynamic speaks to the vibrant dimension-breaking of the project. It rejects our tendency to separate decisions from in front of and behind the camera. The title Madeline’s Madeline is indicative of its layered style, but it also indicates something more: a focus on understanding the contradictions Madeline feels of having people who tell her to express her pain through art, but being expected to create a stage-ready version of herself that’s molded and shaped by those same people. She wants the world to see her version of herself. The conflict arises from trying to translate internal feelings to external communications for others to direct, and the eternal question of whether there’s an objective purpose to art, or the very notion of human perception. Decker frames Madeline in close-up, but the shots are tellingly in shallow focus and fuzzy around the edges, emphasizing imperfect compositions and liminal settings. Some questions will always remain, she seems to say, but we can create beauty in examining their mysteries in new ways.