There are films that reject your cozy thirst to love them. Films that want not to comfort you, but to crawl under your skin and make it itch. They make you feel a deep, drowning unease. They submerge you in their story through sensation and leave you begging for release, for salvation. They leave your nerves raw and your mind rattled. Josephine Decker’s coming-of-age drama, Madeline’s Madeline, is such a film.
On its surface, it’s the story of the titular teen girl (Helena Howard), who is struggling to understand herself amid bullying from schoolmates, the bickering of her fragile mother (Miranda July), and her battle with mental illness. She seeks identity and validation through her involvement with an experimental theater group, where the elegant director Evangeline (Molly Parker) forms a play through group collaboration. While Madeline feels reduced or wrong in many aspects of her life, she feels seen and valued in Evangeline’s theater. But as the girl’s need to impress mounts, so too does her self-destructive streak. This both frightens and fascinates Evangeline, leading to a “collaboration” that may be better described as “exploitation.”
Madeline’s Madeline is both the story of a girl, and an exploration of the ethics of storytelling. Seeking a space outside of her mother’s expectations and rules, Madeline uses her art to find her confidence and community. When she tells her story through her performance, it is powerful, frightening, and untamed. Evangeline craves to take Madeline’s eagerness, talent, and trauma as grist to the mill. This narrative brazenly exposes how the arts are inherently a place for the sensitive and the opportunistic, and the gnarled bonds that form in the pull of vanity, vulnerability, and creativity. But Madeline’s Madeline is less about its story then its sensations.
Decker refuses us a comfy seat to observe this surreal human theater. The cinematography of Ashley Connor swans in and out of focus, as if subject to the heavy breathing of Madeline’s mood swings. Often, the words spoken are from lips offscreen, as the characters throb in our vision through choking close-ups. A soundtrack of percussion, a clapping of hands, thumping of drums, stomping of feet, invokes a primal excitement and agitation. This is not a cinema of spectacle but of sensation. A jangling journey alive with collisions of sight and sound, churning our stomachs into knots of tension as Madeline awkwardly attempts to flirt with local boys who proudly call themselves “porn scholars.” Anxiety builds behind the breastbone as her theater peers mimic her mom in an exercise that quickly becomes mocking. Your flesh may flash sweaty with panic as things build to an immersive and relentless frenzy in the finale. There, the whirl of dance, swirls of whispers, threat of the strange are all topped off with a vision-blocking mask that dares you to make sense of the world visible through its stingy peepholes. And then, release and resolution, profound yet puzzling.
I cannot tell you I liked Madeline’s Madeline. The movie put me too on edge to enjoy it. But enjoying it is not the point.
Decker doesn’t want you to just watch the story of a girl torn between worlds. She wants you to experience it. She wants you to sink into Madeline’s skin, and feel the twitches of disorientation, discomfort, and doubt that plague this wild-eyed heroine. The sound design and cinematography are scene-stealing co-stars alongside July and Parker, who each give stirring performances as complicated women of fear and yearning. But no one and nothing outshines Helena Howard.
In her screen debut, this electrifying ingénue is radiant with passion and pain, making every frame feel almost obscenely intimate. Howard is a force of nature, yowling and spinning with a ferocity and longing that’s positively heart-breaking. And when she stops, we’re left in awe, itching with unease and ponderings so booming they echo down hallways like the yowl of a stray cat.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com