Madeline’s Madeline: Hold On, by Josh Long
Madeline’s Madeline is a film that defies easy categorization. Brainchild of indie darling Josephine Decker, the film is a rolling, unsettled narrative that keeps you on the edge of your seat with emotional tension. It’s about theatre, mental illness, family, identity – individually, then all at once, then not at all. Much like its title character, it never stops moving, and as such is hard to pin down. But through all the sturm und drang, it’s worth the ride.
Madeline (Helena Howard) loves her new theatre company. They’ve taken her in like a family, seemingly like no one ever has before. The company’s love and support contrasts with that of her actual family. The contrast is especially stark between director Evangeline (Molly Parker) and Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July). It’s clear that Regina deals with mental illness, but we soon learn that Madeline herself was recently released from a psychiatric hospital. In fact, Madeline’s own illness may be the very thing Evangeline wants to explore in her company’s new play. Is she being taken advantage of, or is this a useful outlet for her?
Decker skillfully places us squarely inside Madeline’s headspace. From the earliest frames of the film we feel movement, rapid change, disassociation – it’s impossible for us to hold on to anything, to slow down, to stand at a distance and make any kind of judgments. This is Madeline’s existence. She has very little stability in her life, and her mental instability jumbles things up, jumps from moment to moment, possibly making it difficult to distinguish dreams from reality. But it never feels as if we’re watching a crazy person. Decker eschews the stereotypical “trippy” mental illness and dives into the reality of the abstraction that might be the experience for someone with a serious personality disorder.
The themes are writ large throughout the film. At moments they hit hard. When Madeline begins to suspect that Evangeline is using her mental state and situation as “inspiration,” she fires back by leading the other actors in a scene to highlight Evangeline’s own insecurities about her pregnancy. Similarly, when Madeline suspects Evangeline wants to draw her mother into the play somehow, she stages a cruel imitation of her mother that thrills her “theatre mother,” while driving her actual mother crying from the building. Also a recurrent theme is that of escaping identity, in not only the way Madeline can dive into a new character, but the way that she develops a new “family” for herself in the theatre company.
The result of this avalanche of ideas is that it seems to find it difficult to communicate anything definitive. The film’s story was workshopped (much in the way that Evangeline workshops a story with her actors), and it often has the scattershot inkling that there isn’t one unifying voice. The ending especially seems like it may have fallen prey to a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation. This isn’t to diminish the exploration of ideas – experimental theatre rarely “works” completely, but in the experiment, there’s a great deal that can be very moving and insightful.
Performances are great all around. Newcomer Helena Howard is vibrant, passionate, a joy to watch. The sense is ever present that she fully “gets” this character, has done the work on portraying personality disorders, and handles Madeline’s manic shifts beautifully. She brings both innocence and guile to the character, paradoxical qualities that are clearly both necessary. Miranda July plays Regina’s cruelty and frailty in perfect symbiosis. We can understand why her relationship with Madeline is so strained, and we want her to act differently, primarily because we feel empathy for her, and the relationship with her daughter that she’s losing out on. And Molly Parker is the perfect foil to Regina. She’s got everything together, she swoops in to be Madeline’s emotional support, but clearly doesn’t really know what she wants. She feels like she’s doing the right thing by bringing life to Madeline’s story, but maybe hasn’t stopped to think about whether she’s coopting a life not her own to manufacture emotion. Which brings in a whole other question of art’s responsibility.
Steeped in the ideas of theatre, identity, and flawed personalities, Madeline’s Madeline dances through the moments of one young, troubled girl’s life. While some of these Big Ideas may not fully crystallize, there’s plenty of insight in the journey.