Josephine Decker returns with a commanding, emotionally bracing study of teenage psychosis.
On the soundtrack, echoes, shuffles, a buzzing hum like an insect trap lamp. In the image, incredibly shallow focus, bleary digital trails. Emerging from the haze, a teenage girl screeches, imagining herself as a cat, and then a sea turtle. Welcome to the world of New York high school performing arts student Madeline, who’s crafting an alter ego called Zia to channel her emotions. Then again, “this is just a metaphor. These are not your emotions.”
Director Josephine Decker, along with some key collaborators like cinematographer Ashley Connor, has been developing her particularly dissonant, emotionally bracing style through years’ worth of shorts and two previous features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. It’s so uncompromisingly distinct that many viewers may find it grating – especially when the pig masks come out – but it’s also a commanding and unmistakable personal vision.
Madeline’s Madeline is Decker’s best yet, more epic, more cohesive, more acidly witty and with the most psychologically sympathetic and satisfying story. Helena Howard, a teenager in her first film role who already seems like a fully formed star, plays Madeline, a kid who has “episodes” and is on some kind of medication. At times she wails and lashes out in line with bipolar or borderline disorders, at times she seems chill, thoughtful and lucid. Her overprotective mother, played by Miranda July, fusses over and triggers her, while her teacher, played by Molly Parker, encourages Madeline’s energy, knowing it’s the driving force giving life to her performances.
Is Madeline really mentally ill, or do her moods just represent the ugly side of going as far as you need to go to achieve self-expression? Most of us have crazed rages as teenagers, and children are born performers who make daft and eccentric noises; where do those impulses go if they’re not examined, channelled, transmogrified into creativity? The film questions the very idea of mental illness and makes it more about the emotional spectrum.
The project came about from a real performance piece Howard was doing about her family life; with Decker, she workshopped it and turned it into this movie, which in turn is an act of self-criticism by the director, following the surrogate mother relationship of Parker’s character and investigating the slipperiness and ego involved in those dynamics.
If Howard’s is the psychologically explosive star turn, July is equally impressive in a subtle, worried, ageing role, as is Parker as a creative whose masks, literal and figurative, find themselves slipping. By the end, when the emotions burst into an assaultive chanting and dancing number recalling alternative musical masterpieces like All That Jazz and Dancer in the Dark, we’ve seen an amazing journey of the hazards navigated by the id as it struggles to be unrestrained and an honest, intensely specific portrayal of youth.
Published 23 Feb 2018
A teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood begins to question what she wants out of life in this surprisingly nuanced Austrian drama.
Ava DuVernay, Josephine Decker and Mia Hansen-Løve feature in the final part of our celebration of women filmmakers.