Teenage girls are having a moment on screen, from Elsie Fisher’s beautifully real turn as a middle schooler in Eighth Grade to Kiersey Clemmons as a college-bound musician in Hearts Beat Loud to Chloe Grace Moretz in the upcoming Sundance Film Festival award winner The Miseducation of Cameron Post. This week, another young woman steps into center stage in Madeline’s Madeline, a swirling fever dream of a film written and directed by Josephine Decker.
Starring Helena Howard in a debut role that’s equal parts thrilling and baffling, Madeline’s Madeline is more visual art installation than narrative film, packed with abstract optics, palpable sound design, disjointed cuts and frenetic camera work. Howard’s Madeline lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July) and younger brother, and as the film begins, she’s a cat. Like, an actual cat, climbing up on the furniture, purring and meowing and nuzzling and pawing. Regina indulges her, and soon we’re transported to a theater rehearsal where Madeline continues similar immersive character work.
The entire film is an exercise in immersion, as Decker doesn’t worry so much about setting her audience up in a place or time (though we come to recognize it as present-day New York), nor does she give much due to a traditional narrative, at least at first. This could be off-putting to those less adventurous among us, but if you’re brave enough to stick with the film into its second act, Decker delivers something quite impressive amidst the chaos.
The narrative that develops involves Madeline’s fraught relationship with her mother and a budding mentorship with Evangeline (Molly Parker), the director of the play she’s in. The youngest in the company by far, she’s also the most willing to take risks and be vulnerable; Evangeline recognizes this as talent and little by little, her attachment to Madeline begins to alienate the rest of the group. All the while, Madeline navigates a set of internal and external uncertainties—fights with her mother, a budding romance, her own mental well-being—that eventually boils over into one of the most powerful scenes by a young actress in recent memory.
Despite a rather stripped down script (the film runs just 93 minutes), Decker manages to pack in a hefty amount of commentary on the female experience, as she explores a wildly tempestuous time in Madeline’s life. There’s the ups and downs at home, including a volatile rapport with her mother, the two of them trying to figure out just how to relate to each other the older and more independent Madeline gets. Mothers and daughters boast perhaps one of the most complicated of interpersonal relationships, and in Madeline’s Madeline, we can feel it.
Then there’s sex. At first, Madeline plays coy, sheepishly kissing a boy she likes, then bolting away on her rollerblades, lest embarrassment consume her. Over the course of our time with her, she practically grows up before our eyes, teetering ever so dangerously into the inappropriate as she comes into her own sexuality (there’s a squirm-worthy moment at Evangeline’s home, as a dinner party Madeline attends winds down).
By the third act, Decker brings together all the threads she’s been weaving until now into a singularly impressive (and yes, immersive) final scene, as the rehearsals we’ve witnessed go not so much off the rails but definitely not in the direction Evangeline anticipates. Immersive theater is hard enough to pull off when your audience is in the room; when they’re on the other side of the screen, about as removed from the experience as they can get, it’s nearly impossible.
And yet, so attached are we to Madeline and her journey by this point that one can’t help but feel both energized and completely spent by the performance. Madeline’s Madeline sets a high price of entry in order to get to the point of appreciation, and no doubt many won’t be willing to pay it. Certainly, I’ve walked out of films for less. But if you’re willing to go a bit off the beaten path with Decker, her vision of femaleness and adolescence is one worth your time.
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