Madeline's Madeline review Helena Howard Molly ParkerYear: 2018
Director(s): Josephine Decker
Writer(s): Josephine Decker, Donna di Novelli
Region of Origin: USA
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Rating: n/a
Color, 93 mins

Synopsis: A theater director’s latest project takes on a life of its own when her young star takes her performance too seriously. (Source)

Madeline’s Madeline is that rare film you just don’t wanna put into words. Through and through, it’s a surreal, cacophonous portrait of feelings and ideas that aren’t done justice by mere definition. Equal parts performance piece and celebration of catharsis through art, director Josephine Decker’s latest transcends expectation and is a bewildering beauty of the highest order. From its meta-introduction, which sets the tone, to Helena Howard’s heart-stopping performance, Decker’s film stops us dead in our tracks. This is a maddening experience about art imitating life, and a dream we don’t want to wake up from.

The story’s plot points come to us in impressionistic strokes, but there’s are some baseline ideas that anchor the entire thing. Madeline (Helena Howard) is the member of an improv theater group in NYC. It’s hinted that she her school environment is vicious, and to make matters worse, she has a very rocky relationship with her constantly anxious mother, Regina (Miranda July). Amidst her improv group, Madeline has become something of a rising star, and an unofficial muse for its director, Evangeline (Molly Parker). As the troupe mounts its next production, Evangeline begins to constantly shift its focus around Madeline and her real life, something that’s at first exhilarating to the young star, but progressively difficult. To top it all off, there are hints of mental illness and a traumatic event with Regina’s mother, and as things go deeper, Madeline begins to get lost in a place between her life and her art.

Saying that there’s a lot going on in Decker’s film is a massive understatement. “This is a metaphor”, one character utters, and more so than most films, nothing going on here is simply what we see on screen. Underneath the scenes of largely improvised moments of emotional vulnerability, is the idea that each one of us is telling a story. What stories we choose to share, whether intentionally or not, within each waking moment is what the film parses. And for performers or creatives, where does fiction and fact start and begin, and is there even a difference? These are textured and rich ideas, which Decker mines through Madeline’s descent into a dreamworld littered with actual musical numbers, performance set pieces and abstract stories within stories. Like a dream, the film has a spontaneity that mimics stream of consciousness, constantly keeping Madeline and the viewer on their toes.

Madeline's Madeline review Miranda JulyNeedless to say, this entire film is held up by Helena Howard’s incredible performance. Again, to use the film’s own vernacular, it’s Howard’s emotions we experience and not our own, but she acts as a conduit to a story that is shattering and affecting. Watching Howard throw her entire being into the character, one can’t help but think we’re witnessing the birth of a new force, someone poised for greatness. She truly grounds the film despite its whimsy and disorienting nature, articulating feelings that are bound to provoke something different in each viewer. Adding to the madness, Molly Parker and Miranda July support Howard in ways that fracture Madeline’s being. Both are inextricably woven into the film’s core, with both women bringing opposing viewpoints to the fore.

There’s a great line in the film that stresses the need to trust our dreams and the subconscious hints trapped within. Delivered nonchalantly in the middle of Decker’s wonderful excess, it’s something that sticks and ends up guiding Madeline’s journey of acceptance and freedom. Without attempting to demystify the film much further, which would suffocate its mystery, let’s just say that Decker’s film is a special one. It searches for truths that aren’t readily apparent but maybe staring us squarely in the face. Madeline’s Madeline is beautiful, haunting cinema that transports us outside of ourselves and pays tribute to the dreams that make sense of our lives.