Madeline’s Madeline

Review by Manuela Lazic

Directed by

Josephine Decker

Starring

Helena Howard Miranda July Molly Parker

Anticipation.

A look at acting from a talented female filmmaker who knows what she’s talking about.

Enjoyment.

An unusual approach to creativity and identity that captivates.

In Retrospect.

Overwhelming at first, Madeline’s Madeline only gains from repeat viewings.

Newcomer Helena Howard is astonishing in Josephine Decker’s bold exploration of art and authorship.

On a beach, a turtle is born. It erupts from its egg and crawls across the sand, desperate to reach the ocean. Via the camera’s point of view, the viewer shares in the creature’s exciting and daunting adventure. Already in these first images, the visual style of Josephine Decker’s third feature, Madeline’s Madeline, is personal and vivacious, easily matching the relentlessly curious spirit of its heroine.

Madeline (the astonishing Helena Howard) is a 16-year-old actress who immerses herself fully in her reptilian character. From the safety and warmth of the small theatre stage used by her class, she can reach the sea and feel the turtle’s survival instinct in her bones. Acting is too often described simply as the ability to pretend – to be someone else, to feel or want certain things.

But Madeline is a wonderful experimental actor, not because she can pretend and lie, but due to her boundless imagination and an abundance of empathy. Acting, when it’s good, is the ability to open oneself up to all kinds of emotions, however foreign they might be to subjective experience.

Madeline’s own life already has its fair share of strong emotions, however, and as it is for the baby turtle, coming of age proves challenging for this young woman. If acting under the tutelage of Evangeline (Molly Parker) provides Madeline with an outlet for her intense and confusing emotions, her caring mother (Miranda July) can’t seem to provide the same solace. Mental health issues are in the air at home, where moments of tenderness rapidly turn to animosity between mother and daughter.

But Decker, herself a trained actor, understands that although these brutal switches may be scary they are nevertheless natural. Madeline’s inability to take a step back from her conflicting emotions makes her difficult to approach but never incomprehensible: she is confused, but only human. Decker’s profound compassion enables her to portray scenes of verbal and even physical violence with both sensitivity and unflinching realism.

It is with this same devotion to emotional truth that Decker paints the complex relationship between Madeline and Evangeline. What begins as a fulfilling, almost clichéd artistic exchange soon turns into a game of exploitation. The white, maternal teacher harvests the mixed-race teen’s raw, real-life struggles to power her own self-aggrandising art, leaving Madeline feeling doubly abandoned – by both her real and adoptive mothers.

A less honest and bold filmmaker would have been satisfied with presenting art as the sure way to salvation and self-actualisation. But Decker, who worked in an experimental theatre setting with her entire crew for several months in preparation, understands that making art is as confusing as life itself, with potential for misunderstanding and abuse of power at every turn.

If Madeline wants to discover her own Madeline – neither her mother’s difficult child, nor Evangeline’s pitiful well of emotion – she will have to use her talents on herself, and welcome her own difficult emotions, instead of constantly running away from them. She will have to act as herself.

Published 9 May 2019

Tags: Helena Howard Josephine Decker Miranda July Molly Parker

Anticipation.

A look at acting from a talented female filmmaker who knows what she’s talking about.

Enjoyment.

An unusual approach to creativity and identity that captivates.

In Retrospect.

Overwhelming at first, Madeline’s Madeline only gains from repeat viewings.

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