Madeline’s Madeline is unafraid to delve into the volatile psyche of a teenage artist. Art is so often used as a tool to sort through perplexing emotions, so it makes sense that struggling teens tend to lose themselves in this low-cost form of therapy. This semi-experimental fever dream poses the question: At what point in the creative process does art as personal self-expression begin to do more harm than good?
Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard) is a 16-year-old actress in a physical theater troupe, fresh out of a brief stay in a psychiatric ward. Her teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) is at once forceful and understanding, as if Fletcher from Whiplash actually had a heart. On the flip side is Madeline’s mother Regina (Miranda July), an unstable but ultimately loving helicopter parent whose moods, like Madeline’s, violently change at the blink of an eye. From a more neutral perspective, Regina’s actions may come across as a frustrated, terrified mom doing her best to make sure her daughter stays healthy. But the eyes of a teenage girl, especially one with mental illness, see the world through a distorted lens. I know this because I once was one.
Told exclusively from Madeline’s perspective, cinematographer Ashley Connor (who also worked on another 2018 coming of age film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) combines frenetic camera movements with dynamic sound mixing to create an utterly sensory experience. Though the frequent close-ups and unfocused shots are dizzying, that’s the point. Teenage girlhood is disorienting.
The line between reality and fantasy is further blurred as the troupe starts work on a new acting project. Evangeline tells the troupe they’ll be performing a piece about the constraints of prison, when it’s actually a metaphor for Madeline’s very personal struggle with her mental illness and her mother. As the production progresses, Madeline’s state of mind deteriorates.
This forces the viewer to constantly be on guard in order to figure out what’s really happening. At times, this is frustrating. But, just like the disorientating camera work, it’s supposed to be. Because Madeline herself is frustrated. With her mother, with her teacher, with her mental illness, with her mixed Black identity, with puberty, with performing, with her burgeoning love/sex life, with everything. There are so many varying themes packed into this film that are never fully explored; the too-short 93-minute runtime leaves us wanting to know more about Madeline.
One theme in particular that stands out is the difference between insecurity and self-consciousness. As an acting exercise, the troupe gets into the headspace of certain animals, transforming into tranquil sea turtles, ominous pigs, and slinky felines. In order to fully immerse themselves into these creatures, the actors must completely shed the embarrassment that comes with acting absurdly in front of both peers and strangers. Later, Madeline and Evangeline admit that they both feel insecure about themselves offstage, demonstrating that nagging fear of failure that lurks beneath an actor’s slick veneer of presumed confidence.
Director/writer/editor Josephine Decker is a performance artist, and she knows exactly how to push the audience to feel maximum discomfort, almost to the point of wanting to walk out of the theater. Not because the film itself is bad, but because the secondhand embarrassment we garner from Madeline’s erratic actions is so palpable. It’s a tough, yet necessary, watch that doesn’t offer any easy answers — it instead encourages audiences to come to their own conclusions. Expect to habitually mull this one over.