By Devika Girish in the July-August 2018 Issue
Elliptical and experimental, Madeline’s Madeline makes a dizzying head trip out of a troubled teenager’s foray into theater and its destabilizing effects on her perceptions of reality and fiction. But unlike the sometimes indulgent affectations of art reflecting on its own artifice, Josephine Decker’s new film roots itself within a knotted (and rarely addressed) intersection of performance, mental illness, and race, collapsing the false dichotomy between aesthetic abstraction and grounded social critique.
Madeline’s Madeline departs, in this regard, from Decker’s previous narrative features. Both Butter on the Latch (2013) and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (2014) exemplify the filmmaker’s flair for translating the fissures and frissons of the subconscious to the screen, but their striking formal improvisations fail to coalesce into anything greater. Madeline’s Madeline starts out somewhat similarly. Its opening sequence melds Madeline’s antics on stage, at home, and (presumably) in dreams into a delirious slipstream of images: at first, she’s purring and curling around her bewildered mother like a cat; next, she’s on a beach dressed as a turtle, with the camera assuming the perspective of an actual turtle; then suddenly, she’s about to attack her mother with a steaming iron. The film’s cacophonous soundscape, a mix of voiceover, heightened diegetic sounds, and Madeline’s inner monologue, compounds the confusion of these scenes.
However, this (somewhat precious) audiovisual fugue soon settles into the more recognizable contours of an adolescent coming-of-age narrative. Fifteen-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) struggles with mental illness and clashes with her single mother Regina (Miranda July), a fragile young woman who seems too scared of her daughter to be of any productive help. Instead, Madeline finds solace in an experimental theater group led by the warm and nurturing Evangeline (Molly Parker). Spontaneous to an almost combustible fault, Madeline takes wonderfully to Evangeline’s primal, animalistic exercises. On stage, she (as essayed by Howard) dissolves utterly and eerily into her characters—and soon, she’s taking them home, terrorizing Regina with her feline persona while looking to Evangeline for maternal comfort.
The ensuing push-and-pull between its three protagonists powers Madeline’s Madeline, oscillating between the intimate tensions of teenage rebellion dramas like Fish Tank (2009) and Margaret (2011) and the more flamboyant, surrealistic power-plays of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010). But the film extends its concerns beyond the psychological, unspooling the complex dynamic between the three women into larger cultural questions about our conceptions of normality—and the ways in which they are inflected, perhaps, by race and class.
As her fights with her daughter grow more and more intense, Regina—forever wary and quivering, as if on the precipice of collapse—herself emerges as unstable and irascible, providing much-needed context for Madeline’s behavior. And Evangeline, with all her New Age talk about authenticity and autonomy, turns out to be insidiously manipulative: taking advantage of Madeline’s trust, she starts siphoning the girl’s mental and familial issues into her play under the pretext of collaboration. Both Regina and Evangeline represent specific types of white womanhood: the perpetual victim and the bougie, parasitic artist. Caught between the two, the biracial Madeline—categorized much too easily as a “problem child”—cuts a tragically disempowered figure.
These are thorny (and self-flagellatory) questions for a white filmmaker to address, and Decker does so with careful obliqueness. Her vertiginous style—with DP Ashley Connor, a blur of fraught, shallow-focused, close-ups—captures the emotional caprices of her characters with thrilling immediacy, allowing her sociopolitical commentary to trickle in through background details. That delicate balance reaches its apotheosis in the film’s conclusion, in which Madeline reclaims her agency from Evangeline with an impromptu performance that is as ineffably cathartic as it is sharply critical.
Devika Girish is a freelance film critic. She grew up in India and currently lives in Los Angeles.