Perhaps more intimate knowledge and experience of the acting profession might have helped me get on board with this bold, experimental exercise. Madeline’s Madeline follows a 16-year-old girl who joins an avante-garde acting troupe, even as she struggles with her own mental health. The movie left me both relieved and feeling left out that I’ve never been bit by the acting bug.
Newcomer Helena Howard plays the title character, and her naturally galvanizing presence on the screen is undeniable. (She even manages to overcome the camera’s fetishization of her voluminous burst of hair.) Madeline is at turns brazen and browbeaten, violent and vulnerable, and Howard skips among each of these notes nimbly, convincing us that they’re all facets of one unstable personality. Director Josephine Decker (an actress herself) and cinematographer Ashley Connor represent Madeline’s most volatile moments with a blurry effect, so that her face slides into focus as the rest of the screen goes fuzzy around her. The sound design adds eeriness and uncertainty by emphasizing labored breathing and unidentifiable knocking. During much of Madeline’s Madeline, you feel as if you’ve succumbed to her fog.
Yet despite the strong lead performance and these immersive aesthetics, Madeline remains frustratingly at a distance. Even as the movie puts us inside her head, it somehow fails to illuminate her. Perhaps the issue lies with the thinly sketched world that surrounds her. Miranda July appears as her mother, at turns timid and abusive, and the truth of their relationship remains vague and elusive. (And not simply because we’re seeing things only from Madeline’s perspective, considering the movie abandons that vantage point on occasion.) Molly Parker registers a bit more strongly as Evangeline, the theater troupe’s director. Willfully dismissive of the fact that Madeline’s most riveting performance moments are rooted in real pain, Evangeline pushes the teenager too far. The movie’s narrative briefly shifts into gear when Madeline pushes back, but this soon dissipates in favor of a staged revolt by the entire troupe that—while visually arresting—seems to come out of nowhere.
It may seem strange to ask a film about a blinkered view of reality to have a greater sense of clarity, but that’s exactly what’s missing from Madeline’s Madeline. There is a disconnect here that can’t entirely be attributed to the mental-health challenges faced by its main character. We should be able to experience Madeline’s internal fog while still coming away with some understanding of her as a person. Madeline’s Madeline succeeds on the first point, but not that latter.