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Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a film so exhilaratingly original that it seems to redefine what cinema can do. It’s the story of a mentally ill teenager who discovers she has a talent for acting. She is thriving in a theater group until the inevitable human drama threatens her fragile psyche. It would be easy for such a film to lean into its postmodernism—after all, you’re watching a young actress in an experimental film playing a young actress doing experimental theater—but it never opts for those shallow rewards. Despite its seriousness of purpose, it aims for the heart and not the head, and it hits you where you’re already bruised.
On the surface, Madeline’s (Helena Howard) troubles are of the typical teenage variety. She has trouble at school, spends a lot of time on her own, and engages in vicious arguments with her single mother (Miranda July). With her peers, she tries on different personalities to see what fits best. When approached by a cute boy, she throws on a fake voice, then invites him to her house to watch porn. She vibrates with confidence one minute, then folds into herself and disappears the next.
The only place she feels free to be herself is at the immersive theater class taught by Evangeline (Molly Parker), who is enamored of Madeline’s natural talent and even shapes the group’s upcoming project around Madeline’s real life. It’s easy to see why she feels comfortable here. Evangeline nurtures her in a way that her mother never does, and her fellow actors accept her as part of their community.
On one level, the film functions as a de-stigmatization of mental illness. Having just exited a mental hospital, Madeline doesn’t know who to trust or what to believe about herself. But what teenager hasn’t felt the same—alone, confused, and desperately, utterly mad? Madeline’s Madeline bridges the specific and the universal through its profound subjectivity, keeping us inside its heroine’s fractured mind with purposeful POV shots and jump cuts. As she is pulled toward and away from her dueling authority figures, her mother and her teacher, we flow right along with her, too close to even consider judging her decisions.
These adventurous directorial choices are supported by a trio of stunning performances. In the most arresting debut in recent memory, Howard captures the desperation and emotional frailty of Madeline’s mind—so eager to find connection and companionship that she leaves herself open to manipulation and abuse. It’s heartbreaking to watch and thrilling to see her begin to transcend her surroundings. As the mother, July brings complexity and vulnerability to what could have been a one-dimensional role, while Parker achieves the difficult task of changing the most under Madeline’s gaze with perfect naturalism.
Madeline’s Madeline may bring you closer to the inside of a character’s head than any recent film, but do we as an audience deserve to be there? The film has its ideas about that, too. Its most impressive accomplishment may be in how it seeks to recognize its own blind spots, ensuring that it never succumbs to the easy exploitation of Madeline that its characters do. Ultimately, it’s a film that refuses to rest until its every intellectual impulse has been realized and explored. Madeline’s Madeline remains compulsively watchable through every blistering moment.
Madeline’s Madeline opens Friday at the Avalon Theatre.