Madeline's Madeline

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/17/18 04:59:15

"Equal parts excellent performances and art-house hooey."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Well, that's me done with Josephine Decker. I don't want to be. There are some terrific performances to be found in this movie, a pretty decent core story, and moments that feel like something approaching self-awareness. As with her previous work, I can see great talent and potential there. I want to say nice things. And the thing of it is, if I hadn't come into this movie with a chip on my shoulder about certain things from her previous films, I'd probably be a lot more impressed, although it's not like the things that put that chip there wouldn't still be big negatives.

Things start with 16-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) doing an exercise in an experimental theater program. She likes theater more than school, and it seems to be a good outlet for the things that had previously found her in psychiatric care. It's a situation that leads to her mother Regina (Miranda July) being rather high-strung, afraid of a relapse but worried about her daughter being swallowed by something she doesn't understand. Madeline, then, naturally gravitates toward Evangeline (Molly Parker), the troupe's leader who becomes fascinated by Madeline's story, moving a version of it closer to the center of the play that she's developing.

You can understand that; Madeline is a fascinating character given impressive life by Helena Howard. She has different faces for Madeline to present to her peers, her family, and her theater friends, but she connects them all with a desire to belong that both can have her shine dazzlingly bright when she sees a chance to connect and strongly suggests how dark her thoughts can get without actually showing her at her worst. She never shies from how Madeline is very much an adolescent, with both her impulsive and calculated actions showing a certain immaturity, so that even when she realizes something crucial and changes direction, it still feels like something where the consequences aren't completely considered; it's the actions of someone who is very bright but also troubled and who, even when she's figuring things out and focused, is still raw and clearly inexperienced. There can be a tendency to elevate the performances of young people that demonstrate maturity, but Howard's ability to show complexity without sacrificing Madeline being a teenager is something to watch for.

The adult performances are good, too. Molly Parker captures what makes someone like Evangeline so seductive to Madeline, giving off the sense of being a knowledgeable mentor but also kind of vacant It's not a one-or-two-note performance, though, and Parker injects a certain amount of desperation as the film goes on, almost vampiric in how she looks at Madeline by the end. Miranda July, similarly, dives into being the most embarrassing mom she can, capturing Regina's desperate desire to do right by her daughter confounded by her constant worry that there are things she just can't understand. Neither feels like a caricature, but there is the occasional sense that they are both exaggerated a bit because they're being shown from Madeline's point of view. There's also a smaller but crucial contribution by Sunita Mani as Evangeline's assistant who probably sees things more clearly than the rest.

There's so much going on here that's good that it becomes incredibly frustrating that Decker can't just get out of her own way. She's not as terrible as she once was of loving it when shots go in and out of focus - her previous features were nearly unwatchable for it - but she and cinematographer Ashley Connor still do it a lot, and it's not nearly as revealing of Madeline's uncertain, medicated/off-meds perspective as she seems to think. I do wonder if it feels like a better metaphor for that for those that go in not aware of and on edge about how the filmmaker does this all the time. Instead, it just gives me a worse headache than any 3D or hyperactively-edited film ever has as my eyeballs try to compensate for what the filmmakers aren't doing.

She also puts characters like Evangeline whom the audience recognizes as being full of shit at the center but lets the rest of the cast lag behind. The moment when everybody realizes that Madeline being Evangeline's muse has gone from inspiration to exploitation is the film's most powerful, but Decker frustratingly backs away from that moment's, brief, beautiful clarity to finish on more improvised, theatrical nonsense. It makes a certain amount of sense - Madeline is not "cured" of what ails her at that point, and it's the best way these characters know to communicate. It goes on and on, the work of a filmmaker who has just not found the point where abstraction helps to say what you mean, rather than takes away from it.

Maybe Decker's next feature will show her as more than talented but frustrating, but at this point, I kind of don't care to find out. Who wants to write about the cinematography causing eye-strain for a fourth time or how a film "developed through improvisation" (per the end credits) meanders? It may be a worthwhile trade-off for some, but it's also a lot to ask.

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