It's difficult to describe the experience of watching Madeline's Madeline, which snagged lead Helena Howard an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Actress while also picking up a nomination for Ashley Connor's stellar lensing of the film.
I suppose I would start with how the film triggered my own memories of my early days on the theatrical stage, a disabled actor/writer with a fractured life trying to make sense of it all. Madeline's Madeline reminded me of how I became so determined to find myself on the stage that I wrote and produced my own plays, in one case a remarkably graphic play about suicide during a particularly challenging time in my own life. I would later learn that more than one of my friends who attended the play's opening night quietly held their breath that night as they actually feared I had plans to "really" end my life that night.
Ouch. I guess I was worse than I thought.
As 16-year-old Madeline, newcomer Helena Howard is nothing short of a revelation. Possessing a feral yet frazzled energy that practically explodes across the screen, Howard is impossible to not watch even in those scenes where you're silently mumbling to yourself "WTF is actually going on here?"
Trust me, you'll catch on. Maybe.
Fresh out of a stint in the psych ward, Madeline finds herself immersed in the world of a prestigious theatrical troupe and its experimental and ambitious director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). While her uninhibited artistic expression captivates Evangeline, the jarring intimacy soon leads to increasingly blurred lines between performance and reality and intensifies Madeline's frayed relationship with her over-protective mother (Miranda July).
If it sounds like Madeline's Madeline is nothing more than a film about the purging of one's demons via artistic expression, you're only partially right. A Sundance favorite earlier this year, Madeline's Madeline is as much about artistic expression as it is about the artists who express it. The third feature from director Josephine Decker, Madeline's Madeline continues Decker's artistic curiosity about the ways in which life and art intersect. The film's title, which may seem odd or pretentious, is in fact sublimely perfect in every way.
The brilliance of Madeline's Madeline is that Decker poses questions without answers, an approach that may frustrate some but will absolutely enchant true cineastes who revel in challenging, thought-provoking and emotionally resonant cinema that avoids cookie-cutter scenarios and paint-by-numbers solutions. Madeline's Madeline blurs the lines between such topics as mental illness and artistic fantasy, maternal protection and maternal projection, and artistic mentoring versus artistic exploitation. Madeline's Madeline doesn't allow you to easily assume what's going on here, so easily blurred are the lines between fact and fiction and truth and fraud.
As played by Helena Howard, Madeline will bring to mind any number of commonly known tragically flawed yet immensely talented Hollywood figures. While there's no drug use to be found within the film, my own mind kept drifting off to the remarkable Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps because Hoffman himself could possess such a remarkable feral quality and could, seemingly with ease, practically drown himself with completely and utterly tragic characters.
Madeline herself is a wildchild, a biracial young woman who finds herself surrounded by two maternal figures, both white, with one an overprotective and seemingly unresolved spirit toward whom Madeline occasionally strikes out physically and the other a more free-spirited mentor whose nurture, perhaps genuine, still seems to come with a price attached to it.
Is either one an actual healthy relationship? Is anyone here healthy? You'll have to decide for yourself.
Molly Parker is tremendous as Evangeline, an encouraging yet challenging maternal figure of sorts to the diverse troupe that she guides with a strong hand that doesn't always seem like a strong hand. Likewise, it's rather refreshing to see the immensely talented Miranda July in this type of role, an interesting detour away from her own experimental cinematic efforts such as the absolutely remarkable Me and You and Everyone We Know.
Cinematographer Ashley Connor practically forces the viewer into a sort of hazy aura of intimacy, occasionally making it seem as if we've joined this workshop's participants onstage and become part of the film ourselves. It's remarkable lensing, occasionally jarring yet stunningly effective. Caroline Shaw's original music also serves as a perfect companion to the film.
Madeline's Madeline certainly isn't for everyone, its experimental nature actually coming out of director Josephine Decker's own experimental nature including her improvisational with the remarkable Helena Howard. It's as if we're seeing, at times, a directorial exorcism of sorts and the birthing of a remarkable actress. Even the film's closing scene, which I found to be one of the absolutely best closing scenes in cinema this year, will be difficult to swallow for those who prefer to stick to a stronger narrative structure.
If you're open to the experimental side if cinema, Madeline's Madeline is an absolute winner more than worthy of its Independent Spirit nominations and equally deserving of others. It's a pity that Decker herself won't be recognized for her work here, though I suppose that only affirms what we've learned by film's end - this is Madeline's Madeline.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic