Madeline’s Madeline Explores the Dark Side of the Theatre Arts

Josephine Decker’s film Madeline’s Madeline pulled me in me from the trailer alone: an indiscernible barrage of frames being pulled away from the screen as if they were tangible photographs being switched by a team of puppeteers behind a theatre curtain, soundtracked by a “hey-na-na” chant and hand claps. As mysterious and enigmatic as it was, I’ve never seen anything more intriguing, or ominous.

The film stars young teenage newcomer Helena Howard as the title character, Madeline, a teen living in New York with her younger brother and mother (Miranda July). Madeline suffers through her mother’s overbearing nature and an undisclosed mental illness in her day to day, but finds refuge in a weekly acting class with an experimental theater troupe, led by director Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Like the trailer, we’re fed scenes with which we’re left to put together to shape as an understanding of Madeline’s life, and how increasingly sinister her working relationship with Evangeline becomes. After confiding in Evangeline about a dream she had about slamming her mother’s hand with a hot iron, Madeline’s story is used as a backdrop for the troupe’s next project, extrapolating her dream and a fictional character analogous to Madeline. She obliges, as she’s glad to be the star of the play, but the grossness of it all starts to manifest in the ways in which it unravels Madeline’s already fragile psyche and how it challenges both women.

Madeline’s Madeline is a remarkable movie that dissects the way art takes from reality and appropriates it for the consumption of the audience. Many readers might interject that great art always takes from real life, and that’s true to an extent, but what Decker asks us to interrogate is who is the art/artist taking from, and who’s benefitting from the art being made?  (And in David Ehrlich’s brilliant Indie Wire article, we learn its directly lifted from Decker’s own inner dialogue as an artist).

In an earlier scene, a young ex-con named Jacob is invited by the troupe to speak about his prison experience, and it inspires the theme of their next play: incarceration, or freedom, as interpreted by each actor.

Madeline has no boundaries to advocate for herself because she’s young and inexperienced: she’s a blank slate. Evangeline either has no insight into how problematic she’s being or how tone deaf she is, either because she believes Madeline’s participation in it makes it okay, or she generally doesn’t see the harm in using elements of other people’s lives (like Jacob’s time in prison)  for her own use. Decker also throws in a racial dimension: Evangeline is white, Madeline is half black, Jacob is black, and Evangeline’s husband is black, so the idea of white artists taking from the experiences of people of color is studied here.

I imagine Madeline’s Madeline won’t impress moviegoers that don’t feel up for being challenged by an avant garde, loose narrative film— and that’s okay— but this movie is one in a million in the discussions it raises, along with its innovative aesthetic choices. The film is shot in such an interesting way that it feels like we’re in a delirious fever dream inside Madeline’s head. (Hat tip to cinematographer Ashley Connor).

Howard, also, is such an impressive young actor, and presents fascinating character studies of a young girl trying to find the harmony in her otherwise chaotic waking life through her creative outlets. Miranda July is also noteworthy as Madeline’s mother, and her typically gentle, soft nature is turned on its head as she’s presented here as a neurotic, stressful matriarch.

Really, if you enjoy cinema’s capacity for using mood and its characters to drive a film, Madeline’s Madeline will leave you awash in wonder. It pulls you in with so little, and grips your attention until its dreamlike, bizarre conclusion.

Madeline’s Madeline opens August 24 at Edwards Westpark 8, in Irvine, with more openings to follow. Written and directed by Josephine Decker, starring Molly Parker, Miranda July and introducing Helena Howard.

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