“Experimental” can still be a dirty word in the movies. Viewers do not mind being challenged, but they do not necessarily want something that would be more at home in an art gallery. Nonetheless the early buzz for Madeline’s Madeline describe it as an “experimental psychological thriller.” Writer/director Josephine Decker has a background in performance art, and it shows: most of the movie is set around an Avant-garde theater and rehearsal space. For all its formal daring, Decker’s scope is traditional: this is a coming of age film about a young woman without a place to call home.
Newcomer Helena Howard plays Madeline, and she is in nearly every scene. There are two figures who loom large over her life: her hapless mother Regina (Miranda July), and her acting coach Evangeline (Molly Parker). When we meet Madeline, she is already in the throes of acting class. Along with her classmates, she pretends to be an animal (she chooses a sea turtle). Evangeline offers practical advice: “Are you a sea turtle, or an actor pretending to be a sea turtle?” Clearly Madeline loves her time at rehearsal, since she treats her mom with hostility. This is normal teenage behavior, but there is an edge to it (Madeleine suffers from mental health issues, and she may be bipolar). There are a series of negotiations where Madeline pushes adults beyond their comfort zone, and dares them to intervene.
All of this could have been filmed in your typical Sundance way, with twee animation and abundant voice-over. While this film indeed premiered at that festival, it eschews the norms of indie filmmaking. There are no establishing shots, for one thing: even in a typical scene like an argument in a car, the camera preens from one seat to another. We never get a full sense of any space, except for the theater where the rehearsals happen (they are rehearsing for a show, and while we never get the full of scope of what that entails, the sense is that few people would attend). Either way, Decker’s style is deliberately claustrophobic: anytime Madeleine leaves the theater, we share her discomfort and anxiety. This how the film earns its “psychological thriller” moniker. For a teen like her, what should be ordinary is oppressive.
Another undercurrent throughout the film is race. Madeline is biracial, with a white mother. Does she resent her mother’s race, even while acknowledging her own? Does she embrace Evangeline because she feels no connection to her whiteness? The film never answers these questions, nor does any character bring up race in an overt way, and yet it is an important part of Madeline’s inner life. Another is her sense of authenticity, and how that ties to mental illness. We know she takes medication, she is prone to episodes, and she breaks down barriers. No one can dismiss her as “crazy,” and yet her stubborn refusal to embrace the artifice of theater alienates every adult around her. She is not just acting out, although she is doing exactly that. She is learning who she is as an artist.
Normally I try and avoid direct comparisons, since most films deserve to be discussed on their own merits. But in the case of Madeline’s Madeline, comparisons may do it a favor since much of it is unusual, even hostile. This film is Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade crossed with Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan: it tells a fractured, highly subjective story about how a young woman deals with the world, using the confines of theater and performance to deepen her sense of alienation. Parts of the Decker’s film are maddening and deeply uncomfortable; she scarcely gives the audience room to breathe. What makes it tolerable are the performances, including a galvanizing one from Helena Howard. But for all its character study goals, this film becomes something else entirely towards its conclusion. Its stirring a climax is nothing short of an artistic mutiny, one borne out of empathy, rage, and the joy of artistic interpretation. Sound bonkers, right? I guess you’ll just have to see it for yourself.