At its worst, experimental cinema can come across as pretentious or confounding, even as audiences appreciate the ambition behind the effort. At it’s best, the experience can be immersive, intoxicating, and even transcendent. Josephine Decker’s latest feature clearly falls into the latter category. Madeline’s Madeline isn’t just the most invigoratingly original film of 2018, it’s one of those rare movies that willingly upends the medium’s established narrative cadence to shapeshift into its own unconventional, yet thoroughly compelling form.
But as impressively creative as it’s percussive dislocation and fractured imagery is, none of it could’ve flourished without the phenomenal performance of Helena Howard, a total unknown who stuns in her star-making debut. It’s her unnerving yet mesmerizing identity-blurring turn that anchors the film’s metaphoric abstractions in visceral emotion. She plays the titular Madeline, a precocious but psychologically troubled teenaged actress, whose undefined mental illness is exacerbated by her emotionally exploitative theatre director Evangeline (Molly Parker).
In any role (sometimes human, sometimes animal) Madeline’s aptitude for acting is obvious, combining observational acuity with an absolute commitment to draw upon an unstable well of anxiety and insecurity, in order to transfer and transform. Her theatre troupe myopically only sees raw talent – but it’s her overwhelmed yet attentive single mother, Regina (Miranda July), that feels the brunt of her increasing erraticism at home. Although supportive, Regina grows worried about the toll these acting classes are exacting on Madeline’s roiling psyche.
Currently struggling with an unorthodox immersive theater project, Evangeline looks to Madeline as an inspiration and a centerpiece. Fully aware of her young actress’ tenuous relationship with her mother, Evangeline contrives to insert Regina into rehearsal with the intention of provoking louder and more authentic reactions from Madeline. By inviting Regina into Madeline’s only avenue of mental escape, the director is willfully causing distress in order to to craft an entire meta production around Madeline’s familial scars and creative process.
Under the guise of collaborative art, Evangeline obliterates the boundary between personal and professional space, even daring to introduce improvisational role play that hits far too close to home. This intrusion without consent only works because of Madeline’s need for validation and Regina’s desire to understand. The film does an exceptional job of plunging it’s audience into the girl’s struggle for clarity with luminous shifts in camera focus, carefully displaced sound design, and dreamlike sequences that question if something was fantasy, memory or reality.
The lines between reality and imagination further dissolve if you consider that Decker’s film itself was developed out of similar improvisations with Howard and other collaborators. Much like how it’s themes examine if such a process constructs fiction, or if the fiction is constructing you – this film deconstructs it’s own real-life production without ever leaving you disengaged from the striking work onscreen. Madeline’s Madeline might not be for everyone, but this is the kind of radical filmmaking that makes for a thoroughly unique cinematic experience.