There’s a common misconception about filmmaking 18 years into the century which the exceptionally bold “Madeline’s Madeline” seeks to destroy: That films have to guide the audience through its thoughts and preconceptions.
Most of the time that hand-holding results in muted climaxes, or worse—the all-important “missing of the point.” That’s fine and all in a Hollywoodscape where directors insist moviegoers on forming their own conclusions as they leave the theater (or close the Netflix app), but writer-director Josephine Decker’s ostensibly small, but monumental, film blasts that atavistic notion to oblivion.
Hitting theaters at a time when we’re granted a breather between explosive summer movie fare and the so-called awards-caliber film season, Decker’s story of an insatiable teen trying to escape the chaos of her life and mind through involvement in an amateur play is almost sure to be overlooked.
It feels destined to, as a matter of fact, before, in either five years of 30, we look back on it as a film that represented nothing less than a minor step forward in the evolution of movies and how we absorb the medium.
Foregoing traditional storytelling, “Madeline’s Madeline” drops us into Act II of an urban fable, unfolding over a blend of hallucinogenic camera-dancing and Caroline Shaw’s curiously perverted score—an organism that won’t be denied its tenacity, ricocheting between hellish orchestral strings to faux a cappella with unnerving ease.
The method mirrors the motive here. This is a story about instability – within our own minds and out of them – and the futility of outside forces to not only supervise it, but control it for their own advantage.
And Decker embodies that with her direction, along with the female composer, cinematographer and trio of leads. “It’s just a metaphor,” a woman says into the camera at the film’s onset. For the next 90 minutes, we’re not trying to determine if that’s a statement for us or Madeline as much as if it’s a warning or an instruction.
It could even be both. The spirit of “Madeline’s Madeline” certainly grants us the evidence to wholeheartedly believe that, even as it creeps ever closer to veering from psychological drama into cerebral thriller.
Decker’s film – which some might call experimental, though that would underserve it, as the confidence in her machinations is conveyed not in whispers but roars – is a paradox in many ways. It’s straightforward, but, for the reasons mentioned above and many more, it’s clearly not. There’s undoubtedly a message in its exquisite chaos, though it’s as much an experience as a negotiated memorandum.
Most bravely, though, it’s the kind of movie that makes us question the logical limits it has imposed, to the point of questioning the magic of moviemaking itself. We’re plunged directly into the souls of particular rooms, interactions and atmospheres. The plots of other movies advance by exposition; Decker opts for a vignette approach that prioritizes intimacy, and the eventual destruction thereof.
At rehearsals for Evangeline’s (played by an ever-underutilized Molly Parker, exhibiting Delphic sympathy) continuously evolving play, it’s clear Madeline is an amateur compared to those around her, but what’s leading us to assume that? The fact her green sweatshirt stands out while other performers are black-clad? The fact she resembles a creature out of the actual wild even as her counterparts wear devilishly-created animal masks?
We know Madeline’s relationship between she and her mother is a mercurial one, but no one says the words aloud. Nonetheless, Decker makes it known—the fact is a part of this world, one that stands as concretely as the house they live in. It’s just a metaphor, perhaps…but is it one in the film’s reality, or in Madeline’s mind? Can we even distinguish between the two? And how does viewing the experiences through her lens cloud our own interpretations?
How characters relate to one another doesn’t matter as much as where their relationship stands, and where it’s going. Decker’s techniques stand somewhere at the intersection of surrealism and disturbing familiarity.
The result is a boundary-pushing effort. As the lines between reality and metaphor continue to blur, we begin to question if we have yet to see the real Madeline. And we ponder whether her antics and talent are really an act, or something potentially much more explosive, right up to the credits.
Predictable endings are often a downfall at the multiplex. In “Madeline’s Madeline,” it’s a dubious task to foresee the next 10 seconds at any given moment. Decker manifests the complexities of Madeline’s mind to sometimes disturbing effect. It’ll prove to be too unfettered of a vision for some; but it’s perfectly representative of her struggles and evolving perspectives of the women that surround her.
Helena Howard – apparently discovered by Decker at an arts festival attended by her high school – immediately becomes a name to remember with her turn as Madeline, and with nary a single other acting credit to her profile.
No other actress has shown more range in 2018; no other actress can boast a more electrifying debut this decade. In one scene in particular toward the film’s end, she becomes a cannonball of all her emotions hurtling through the limitations she’s been bound by. It’s the kind of earth-shattering acting anchored by an intent to restrain our breathing, an awards-worthy turn that might render this year’s eventual leading actress honorees as fraudulent.
Howard, like the film, is transcendent of her time. And, in similar fashion as her indelible performance, the final moments of “Madeline’s Madeline” are somehow equal parts ambiguous and wholly satisfying—a minor miracle, in a project that brings new meaning to the word and its storied history as it pertains to cinema.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is not rated
Starring: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Directed by Josephine Decker