Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie Review: Madeline's Madeline

Madeline's Madeline **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Josephine Decker.
Written by: Josephine Decker and Donna di Novelli.
Starring: Helena Howard (Madeline), Miranda July (Regina), Molly Parker (Evangeline), Okwui Okpokwasili (Nurse, KK), Sunita Mani (Assistant Max), Felipe Bonilla (Santos, Cousin Elmer), Lisa Tharps (Laura), Curtiss Cook (George), Reynaldo Piniella (Jaime), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Kaila). 
I watched both of director Josephine Decker’s first two films back-to-back when they were released on Fandor back in 2014 – Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Lovely and Mild – and thought that while both of them were flawed, they showed real talent – particularly in their form, more than their narrative. Decker’s strange shooting style, and intuitive editing, were fascinating, as was her sense of place. But neither film was all that good on a narrative level – they were better at building mood, than telling a story, or exploring its characters. In her follow-up, Madeline’s Madeline, all those problems are gone – and what we’re left with is a stunning film – a coming of age drama about a teenage girl, torn between two mother figures, which blends fact and fiction, and questions the ethics of doing just that, as it proceeds down the line. It will, undoubtedly, be a frustrating film for some viewers – those who want a clearly narrative, more answers, and more traditional storytelling. But if you go along with the film, it’s quietly stunning – especially when it gets to the end of the film.
Madeline (Helena Howard, giving a remarkable debut performance) is a 16-year-old girl living in New York with her mother, Regina (Miranda July) and her brother. She is the youngest member of an experimental theater group, run by Evangeline (Molly Parker) – who is working on a new work – although it seems to change from rehearsal to rehearsal as to what it is about. While the two older women are rarely in the same place together with Madeline, they are both clearly struggling for some kind of control over her – wanting Madeline to be a certain way. Neither of them are probably good for her, and I’m not even sure a combination will work. There is talk about Madeline’s health – mainly in the background, mentions of being institutionalized. Madeline is also clearly bi-racial – but her (presumably) black father is nowhere to be seen, although he has left behind all his stuff in a basement. It’s telling that the two women wrestling for control over Madeline are both white – and how Madeline’s own race is barely mentioned. It’s still pivotal to the movie, whether it’s talked about or not.
The performances in the movie are remarkable – which is even more amazing when you think of the style of the movie, and how the actresses had to work. This is a world that Miranda July knows well – one of performance art, and indie films – and she is excellent as the nervous, over-protective mother, who while she is understandably worried for her daughter, also is helping her very much by treating her like a child. It’s easy to see why Madeline is initially so taken with Evangeline – who is a freeing influence, someone who wants Madeline to express her, to show everyone who she is. But as the movie moves along, it’s becomes increasingly clear that Evangeline is exploiting Madeline – the work the group is doing becomes more and more about Madeline, her pain, her relationships, the violence inside her, etc. At what point does collaboration turn into exploitation?
This is a key question, because Decker herself worked very closely with Helena Howard on developing the movie. She is, in a way, a version of Evangeline – albeit one who recognizes this question, and questions it, which is something Evangeline does not do. Decker’s process also allowed Howard to deliver the remarkable performance she does in the film – as Madeline takes control of the narrative.
The style of Madeline’s Madeline will alienate some people. The images are beautiful, but not in a traditional way. The editing is ragged, and intuitive. All of it is designed to place us inside Madeline’s head, even as the movie doesn’t attempt to fully explain her – we get the sense of what it’s like to be her. It can be, admittedly, maddeningly at times – and it takes a while to get on the films wavelength. And yet, by the end, I was enthralled. When I saw Decker’s first two films, I could see the talent there – I just didn’t quite think the movies were fully realized. With Madeline’s Madeline, she truly does announce her as a massive talent.

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