MADELINE’S MADELINE is an uncomfortable viewing experience. The film makes you want to tug at your skin and shake out the overly tactile levels of intimacy that permeate the atmosphere of the film. It would be wrong to state it as as coming of age piece, but instead delves into the world of teenage fragility, fraught parental relationships and acquiring unexpected methods to navigate the world around you. Josephine Decker takes viewers through the testing life of aspiring actress Madeline, as she attempts to navigate her own chaotic mind and place in the world.
The studio places a veneer over her life outside, allowing her to relax and express her inner emotions. The role-playing allows her to become whatever she needs at that point, part of a collective that is so immersive it is overwhelming as a viewer, and almost sickeningly captivating. Played by the brilliant Helena Howard, Madeline’s mental health is constantly on the edge in each scene; either soothed by her close bonding with her teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker), or flung into panicked extremities by her almost-neurotic mother, Regina (Miranda July). Howard’s performance is spellbinding, but equally nerve-inducing due to her unpredictable actions, including violent outbursts and shaken withdrawals.
The pacing of the film is relentless and combines with the handheld shaking to give you a perspective from within Madeline’s mind. She’s perpetually afraid, yet equally and intensely fearless. The theatre group focuses deeply on expressive animality, and are expected to explore inner thoughts and associations, which become intrusively personal on more than one occasion. Madeline’s cat persona is perhaps the most astute, and the one we are introduced to first. From her erratic behavior, feline reflexes and non-verbal communication the atmosphere becomes strained and tense, as you plead to tear your eyes from the screen but then cannot if you want to comprehend her behaviour.
“The film begins conversations and explorations which are conflicting, judgmental and surprisingly liberating at times; they go down avenues you don’t expect.”
This is especially the case when Madeline’s mother is involved. Their strained and fraught relationship is frequently relatable: tender moments giggling about ‘the sex talk’ or gossiping about neighbors. But then Regina’s paranoia over her daughter’s mental state and hypochondria almost exacerbates the situation each time, as their fighting descends into a blurred frenzy, that begins to vignette in all corners of the screen and becomes overtly sensory. This was down to the remarkable work of Ashley Connor who had a huge input in Decker’s previous work, including BUTTER ON THE LATCH, and her keen eye on carrying overwhelming scenes in an unsteady but watchable manner is fascinatingly brilliant. You become almost nauseated at times, but still too stubborn to look away – she nails the feeling of it being erratically soft, a congratulatory visual juxtaposition to say the least.
MADELINE’S MADELINE holds great promise for the filmmaker and cast alike. It captures so many diverse elements related to race, class, sex and health. The film begins conversations and explorations which are conflicting, judgmental and surprisingly liberating at times; they go down avenues you don’t expect. The stream-of-thought delves from Evangeline’s adoration that pushes the girl into the spotlight, as Regina grapples to save her daughter from a traumatic overload. Madeline instead absorbs this all in a brash, authoritative manner as she takes ownership of her adulthood and slams it into the face of her friends, family and the audience alike. You may feel like taking a few aspirin after to combat the sensory overload, but the film has burnt its way into your skin, determined that you won’t forget its emboldened, capricious nature.