June 7, 2019
1 Hr., 30 Mins.
adeline’s Madeline (2018), the latest project from the experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker, is a film of bracing visual energy and nonconformist storytelling. It's bold enough to make you wonder to yourself if you’ve ever seen a movie quite like this before.
It stars Helena Howard — a total original — as the eponymous
Madeline, a 16-year-old who lives with mother Regina (Miranda July) and younger brother Damon (Jaron Elijah Hopkins) in a small house on the edges of New York state.
Madeline wants to be an actress. We first meet our heroine play-acting as a kitten, purring and pouncing and playfully snuggling up against anyone watching her in her home’s dining room. Guiding much of her life, then, is her spot in an improvisational acting troupe, which is run in the city by a spirited if sometimes-exploitative director named Evangeline (Molly Parker).
Despite her outward vibrancy, Madeline is uneasy in most scenarios. At home, she’s unpredictable and unhappy; she feels like her mother doesn’t understand her, which is exacerbated by her restlessness. In the studio, Madeline's courageous when performing but unassuming when speaking with her peers. She's shy, almost. We learn that much of some of this push-pull is augmented by an unidentified mental illness, something for which Madeline was hospitalized recently. She is taking medication.
Madeline’s Madeline is a coming-of-age story complete with obligatory misadventures with neighborhoods boys and moments of epiphany. It reaches a dramatic conflict when Evangeline, who is rather fixated on the youngest member of her group, decides to turn a nightmare Madeline had and then shared with her into a full-blown show. But the movie is nebulous enough to make me want to avoid trying to easily categorize it, given what often might come to mind when talking about the coming-of-age movie in general. Blurring fiction and reality, and using Madeline’s sensitive and distractible worldview as the foundation for how everything looks and feels, Madeline’s Madeline is better viewed as an experience than a conventionally written and directed drama. It's something of an emotional kaleidoscope, its inner colors and shapes asymmetrical and often at odds with itself.
Decker’s assured, striking vision has won the film raves. Fans of the movie love it for how ingeniously its cinematography and editing, respectively done by Ashley Connor and Harrison Atkins and Decker, give extra weight to the emotionality of the story and character. It has also been praised for so dexterously combining vital narrative and thematic ideas, including Madeline’s discomfort with her biraciality. But as it can happen when a movie is this stylized, coldness can arise. And Madeline’s Madeline, for all it does exceedingly well, did leave me a bit cold. Decker’s directing style, though thrillingly atypical, can be busy to the point of being alienating. Conversely, her screenplay, which was informed by improvisation during the five-month production process, is smudgy in part because of its indirectness. The contrast is, more often than not, disorienting — perhaps purposefully so — and as such I couldn’t help but feel like the acute dependence on the visceral diluted some of the impact.
Then again, my additionally being mostly turned off by the feature’s potent theater-kid ethos was probably a sign that I was never bound to give myself over to this movie. But Decker’s directorial choices are worth experiencing for oneself — and Howard, who was discovered by her director in 2014, when she was just 15, is such a bewitching performer that we should consider Madeline’s Madeline an arrival. B