Sundance 2018: Madeline’s Madeline, by David Bax
It’s easy to make fun of actor types/drama club kids/theater people. They’re goofy, melodramatic, flighty and, worst of all, they’re prone to suddenly start speaking in British accents for no reason whatsoever. But, in the right setting (and despite how competitive their world is by nature), these cloistered scenes are often incredibly supportive, emotionally open and welcoming places, with little judgment to be found. Josephine Decker’s breathtaking new film, Madeline’s Madeline, examines one such place through the eyes of a young woman who often can’t tell the difference between the elation and the danger of being unmoored around her newfound thespian family. Decker’s subjective approach means that, often thrillingly, neither can we.
Madeline’s Madeline plunges directly into the actor’s mind, opening with an extended scene of Madeline (Helena Howard in a stunning and fearless debut) pretending to be a cat before the movie even lets us in on what the hell is happening. Eventually, we understand that she is a teenager with a younger brother (Jaron Elijah Hopkins), a single mom (Miranda July) and a history of mental illness. Friction at home brings Madeline closer to the director of her theater troupe, Evangeline (Molly Parker), who becomes a second mother of sorts.
In rehearsals, Evangeline seems to stress that what’s inside is more important–more real, in fact–than what’s outside. It doesn’t matter that you don’t look like a sea turtle; if you believe you’re a sea turtle, everyone else will too. While probably good acting advice, it may not be the best message to instill in a young woman who can’t trust her own mind.
Decker has no interest in letting us pity Madeline, though. The film doesn’t give you much of a chance to regard her, or anyone else, from enough of a distance to do so. Most shots, especially in the first half or so of the movie, are focused on heads and faces, with everything else disappearing into a myopic blur. Madeline has a crush on a boy but, even after they kiss, I couldn’t tell you much about what he looks like.
This blindness to the empirical world is okay for Madeline within the safety of the troupe, until it’s not. It’s Evangeline who poisons the Eden, mining Madeline’s troubled home life and relationship with her mother for a new play. Madeline’s Madeline is an intimate film but it depicts a gargantuan violation, a betrayal of trust on the scale of Greek tragedy. Decker and her collaborators–chiefly Howard, Parker, July and cinematographer Ashley Connor–have crafted a uniquely powerful, deceptively simple and staggering, ultimately transformative work of cinema.