Madeline's Madeline Review
Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a film where the stylistic choice is not just informed by the narrative, but is inseparable from it. The pivotal role, played by newcomer Helena Howard, is the focus here - a young woman whose many faces and many personas become entangled until it is unclear who the real person is anymore. Wielding truly experimental techniques in camera, lighting, audio and performance - Decker’s indie film is authentically unique in every aspect.
On a surface level, Decker’s film is about the mother-daughter relationship entwined with the exploitation of trauma for creative endeavours. However, Decker’s decision to frame the film in the way she does allows for a deeper exploration of the inner psyche of three women; Madeline (Howard), Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July) and drama teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker).
The title refers to Madeline’s fractured idea of self - as an actor, Madeline is constantly changing and evolving in front of the camera. Often she is playing a role - that of a sea turtle or her own mother. Madeline’s true and authentic self is hard to grasp - just when she seems to reveal her real emotions, she sweeps the rug out from underneath the audience and those around her. The fluctuating identities of teenage-hood also come into play here - Madeline role plays a variety of personalities seeming to decide which one she prefers.
The first half of Decker’s film can be incredibly disorientating and, at times, overwhelming to watch. The film takes a while to really find itself and feels confused. Decker deliberately places audio and visuals out of sync so as to bewilder the audience, but here it feels messy rather than intended. Rotating and out of focus camera shots almost feel nauseating - the physical movement in conjunction with attempting to understand the action is difficult to follow.
Yet, as Madeline’s personal struggle becomes more acute, the film finds its feet and the eccentricities become immersive. In a crossover of sorts - the deterioration of Madeline’s mental state (or the strengthening, depending on how one views Madeline’s trajectory) coincides directly with the film becoming sure of what it wants to be. Once characters are established and the narrative is set in motion, Madeline’s Madeline becomes something quite revolutionary. The experimental style is intrinsic to the story Decker is telling - Madeline’s own fractured mind is reflected in the non-linear story-line and within the unique editing.
For newcomer Helena Howard, Madeline’s Madeline is an extraordinary showcase of her talent. Without her ability to traverse so many different emotions, arcs and a complex character, Madeline’s Madeline would not exist as it does. Howard is playing a character who is constantly in a state of performance - this dual layer is an immense undertaking for an actor so young but Howard rises to the occasion. She’s an utter joy to watch. Miranda July brings an desperate edge to Madeline's mother, Regina, whilst Molly Parker's Evangeline displays all the qualities of a creator-turned-despot. Both of them give fantastic secondary performances to Howard's pivotal role and their individual narratives (particularly surrounding motherhood) give more depth to the theme of identity.
Unconventional, uncompromising - this are two words to describe Madeline's Madeline. Decker draws on emotional climaxes and moments of despair which ask so much of it's audience - there is no hand holding here. Brave is another word to describe Decker's film. It takes risks - something which should be commended in a time where most cinema screens are filled with superhero movies or franchise films. Guts are what is needed to make a film like this, and Decker certainly has them.
As a true experimental gem, Madeline’s Madeline might have viewers switching off before it can show it’s true colours. Yet, for those that make to the end, the reward is an extraordinary cinematic accomplishment, with it’s foundations in three incredible performances by July, Parker and above all Howard.