What’s the matter with Madeline? And just who is this tempestuous teenager with the blazing eyes and wild bramble of red-brown hair?
“Madeline’s Madeline” is many things: an ambitious meta-exploration of identity through performance, a dizzying plunge into the imaginary psyche of a fictitious young actress (as played by once-in-a-lifetime discovery Helena Howard), an unnervingly personal form of penance by its director, Josephine Decker, for appropriating the lives of her collaborators. What it’s not is a satisfying answer to those earlier questions. That’s because “Madeline’s Madeline” mistakes intimacy for honesty, and it mis-assumes that audiences care nearly as much about the creative process as actors and directors do.
Decker’s third feature (fourth, if you count semiautobiographical documentary “Flames,” which she co-directed) after “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” is by far her most accomplished, but also her most frustrating — and that’s saying something — as it forces audiences into the tempestuous headspace of an actress whose raw, as-yet-unrefined talent is just one of the overwhelming elements to come bursting free when Decker dares to pry open the Pandora’s box of her psyche.
In the surrealistic opening scene, an actress playing a doctor looks into the camera and tells us (or is she telling Madeline?), “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor. The emotions you are having are not your own; they are someone else’s.” What follows is a combination of memory, make-believe, and firsthand experience — for Decker, the cinematic equivalent of immersive theater — as we meet Madeline, a biracial New York high school student who’s waiting to hear whether she’s been accepted to Juilliard’s acting program.
In the meantime, she’s enrolled in a woo-woo theater company whose pregnant director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), sees potential in her unstable prodigy. So do we: Howard, who plays Madeline, has a powerful pull on the camera. With bright, alert eyes and an almost feral unpredictability, she comes across like a “Kids”-era Rosario Dawson: One senses the turmoil in her personality but can’t quite identify its source, as if she’s capable of attacking those around her at any moment (and she may, although it’s never quite clear what happens with that steaming hot iron).
Madeline seems especially hostile toward her mother, Regina (performance artist and filmmaker Miranda July), a browbeaten white woman who dutifully drives her to and from Evangeline’s acting workshop, where jumpy, agitated footage (much of it partly obstructed by blurry shapes looming in the foreground) reveals a pretentious display of needy narcissism run amok. The script follows the tug-of-war between Madeline’s birth mother and Evangeline’s rival maternal figure, who scraps her intended theater piece (something set around prisoners) to build a new one around Madeline’s unique energy — and her strange relationship with her mother.
“I’m really interested in people who are out of control,” Evangeline says at one point, although Madeline doesn’t see herself as crazy. In fact, the bizarre contradiction at the heart of this piece is that the title character’s impression of herself is different from the one seen by her mother, her teacher, and the audience. This is her truth … but is it anyone else’s? How much of Howard, or Decker, or any of the other participants — who developed the script via improvisation — actually served to inform this confounding portrait? The director captures a kind of mother-daughter tension, but the project itself feels unreliable and exhausting, performed with a kind of ecstatic urgency by leotard-wearing hipsters (all touchy-feely, with their tattoos and man buns, the ensemble feels more like a cult than an acting troupe).
Does Decker mean to find comedy in the acting process, or does she take these group exercises seriously? Even as parody, Evangeline’s sessions are torture to watch, and yet, it’s clear that this arena offers Madeline liberation from whatever is bothering her — mental illness? her father’s absence? raw-nerve personality differences with Regina? — unlike home, where she’s actively combative with her over-coddling mom and teasing younger brother (Regina doesn’t dare discipline Madeline when she curses, or says things like, “Call me Madge one more time and I’ll cut your face out and wear it”).
What a lucky thing that Howard is such a magnetic screen presence, since both her character and the film’s experimental style can be so off-putting, rebuffing traditional attempts to identify through its prismatic structure, disorienting editing, and claustrophobic sound design — full of breathing exercises, nervous laughter, and overlapping dialogue, all topped by a demonic “Hey Na Na” chant written and performed by the cast.
DP Ashley Connor (who shot not only Decker’s previous films but also this year’s Sundance-winning “The Miseducation of Cameron Post”) imbues the film with a warm, luminous glow, using indirect light sources to transform Howard’s hair into a kind of bushy halo. Connor’s compositions are beautiful to behold, although she flounders in her Emmanuel Lubezki-esque handheld approach, allowing characters to slip out of the already shallow focus or else tossing them about the frame like drowning swimmers in a tropical storm.
It all adds up to a challenging sit. Take it from this critic, a self-described “cine-masochist” for whom it took four separate attempts to make it through “Madeline’s Madeline.” The first time, I observed dozens of people walk out of the screening at the Sundance Film Festival. In my next two attempts, I couldn’t make it past the 30-minute mark, at which point the characters all don grotesque animal masks, and Madeline (who has spent the first half of the film pretending to be both a cat and a sea turtle) “becomes” a pig.
And yet, for those who do make it through, the film does eventually build to a kind of emotional and artistic catharsis, including an exhilarating full-company dance number that bursts out into the street, and a resolution of sorts to the tug-of-war between Madeline’s two mother figures. To get there, audiences must wade through much capital-A “acting” — the kind of self-aware, look-at-me performance that leaves us feeling like intruders in the kitchen of a less-than-sanitary kitchen: It’s enough to spoil the meal. Personally, as meta-fictional metaphors go, I prefer the tightly scripted, hyper-cerebral style of “Adaptation” writer Charlie Kaufman, although it’s hard to deny that whatever they lack in discipline, Decker and Howard both display incredible potential.