Watching “Madeline’s Madeline” was quite annoying and frustrating for me. Attempting to present a disturbing drama of mental illness and artistic exploitation, the movie is deliberately disorienting and jarring from the beginning to the end, and I sort of understand that storytelling approach to some degree, but I only found myself distracted and confused without much emotional involvement in its story and characters, which, in my inconsequential opinion, deserve more thoughtful and focused storytelling approach.
The story mainly revolves around Madeline (Helena Howard), an adolescent girl who has been a member of a New York City improvisation theater group led by Evangeline (Molly Parker). After the unnerving opening scene involved with a cat and a hot iron (Don’t worry, that cat does not get hurt in the film), we see her going through improvisation routines along with other members, and it looks like she is ready to be committed to art just like others, but she and others do not have any clear understanding of what Evangeline is really trying to develop with them. At first, it seems they are going to do a play featuring animals, so Madeline and other members try their best for channeling their animal characters, but then Evangeline invites an ex-con just because she decides to change the direction of her project, and everyone else is more confused and frustrated than before.
Anyway, Madeline keeps trying her best as encouraged by Evangeline, but there is a serious problem with which Madeline has coped for years. It is clear to us from the beginning that she is mentally unstable to say the least, and she frequently suffers from mood swings while often clashing with her mother Regina (Miranda July), who also turns out to be as emotionally high-strung as her daughter. Regina is surely concerned a lot about whether her daughter will be fine outside, but she cannot help herself as shown from their first scene, and Madeline cannot help but react harshly to that.
While Madeline continues to struggle with her tumultuous state of mind, the situation takes another turn as Evangeline decides to change the direction of her project again. Paying more attention to Madeline than before, she puts Madeline at the center of the subject, and Madeline is certainly happy about this, but it is pretty apparent to us that Evangeline is going to manipulate and exploit Madeline for the project. When Madeline comes to a photography session along with her mother, Evangeline suggests that Regina should participate in the session for getting more genuine emotional expressions from Madeline, and she does get what she wants from Madeline in the end.
Later in the story, Madeline is invited to a party held in Evangeline’s house, and she surely impresses Evangeline’s husband and party guests as brandishing her raw acting ability. Evangeline is not so pleased about that, but that does not stop her at all from exploiting Madeline further, and her artistic exploitation eventually leads to a very hurtful scene where Madeline is pushed to perform something too personal while watched by everyone including her mother.
As busily going up and down along with its disturbed heroine, the movie tries lots of stylish things for emphasizing her warped and agitated viewpoint, but, unfortunately, most of its attempts are just merely distracting. With its constantly dizzy camera movements and endlessly choppy editing, the movie awkwardly swings from one moment to another without enough dramatic momentum to hold our attention, and we are only left with more confusion and frustration while feeling more distant to whatever is going on the screen.
In addition, the screenplay by director/writer Josephine Decker feels rather shallow in its handling of story and characters. While Madeline is supposed to be the one we should identify with, the movie does not provide enough emotional depth to her, and the same thing can be said about many other characters in the film. Besides its three main characters, most of supporting characters in the movie are more or less than disposable plot elements, and that is why a sudden action during the finale does not entirely work despite the considerable efforts from the cast members.
The main performers of the film do as much as they can do with their respective roles. Newcomer Helena Howard did a good job of handling several demanding scenes in the film, and I think she will soon move onto better things to come during next several years. While Molly Parker, who has been mainly known for her supporting role in TV Series “House of Cards”, is also solid as gradually revealing her character’s manipulative side, Miranda July, who drew my attention for the first time with her wonderfully quirky debut work “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005), manages to bring some humanity to her underdeveloped character, and she and Howard give us a little nice moment when their characters are allowed to be less shrill than usual at one point.
“Madeline’s Madeline” is the third feature film by Decker, who previously made “Butter on the Latch” (2013) and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely” (2014). Although I have not seen these two films yet, I can tell you at least that, as far as I can see from “Madeline’s Madeline”, she is a filmmaker with some potential and talent, and I only hope that whatever will come from her next is more engaging than this botched exercise in style.