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In her third film, writer-director Josephine Decker confirms her position as the American indie queen of improv, whose self-styled mission it is to push the outer limits of film language into the stratosphere. Madeline’s Madeline is both heady and head-scratching. Anyone who has ever taken an acting class and witnessed the psychodramas brewed there will relate to this bubbling kettle of raw, unleashed emotions stirred up in shifting power grabs. It’s a dangerous and explosive environment for a talented but “mentally ill” teenager (Helena Howard in a sensational debut) to find herself; as class exercises become increasingly immersive and personal, her loyalties waver between acting coach Molly Parker and flighty mom Miranda July.
This all sounds like a great premise for a psychological thriller or even a horror film, but like Decker’s previous features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the story only dances around genre. The film is really about the filmmaking process itself and the expressionistic, in-your-face way it’s carried out: Dizzy camera movements, out-of-focus shots, run-on editing and non-diegetic sound make for a very intense viewing experience. Factor in the actors and group improv, and the sensation of watching experimental theater on drugs is complete.
Decker’s iconoclastic cinema language blurs the storyline considerably, and will not so much divide audiences as separate out the minority yays from the majority nays. Festivalgoers have seemed game enough, both at Sundance and at the European premiere in the Berlinale Forum (which screened Decker’s earlier films together in 2014), but that kind of patience and goodwill are unlikely to hold for paying patrons.
The film should in any case be a launching pad for the career of the 19-year-old newcomer Howard, a dynamo who demonstrates astounding intensity in the complex role of Madeline. It takes some time for the smoke of Ashley Connor’s trippy, unfocused camerawork to clear enough to get a bead on this pretty, biracial live wire adept at making herself the center of attention. She spars with her white mother Regina (July), who frets about her taking her prescription drugs and drives her to acting class (a form of therapy, perhaps, for whatever ails her?).
Under the direction of regally spacey acting coach Evangeline (Parker), a motley crew of serious, straight-faced students act out “metaphors” and pretend to be sea turtles. Madeline projects herself into a cat personality so well (“Don’t be a cat; be in the cat!”) that it’s creepy. When she is promoted to donning a hideous swine mask, for a moment her psyche seems unable to distinguish between make-believe and reality.
Evangeline must have been informed about Madeline’s medical history, but she is so self-absorbed in the powerful role of teacher that, as the girl’s talent becomes apparent, she pushes her mental limits farther and farther. Unwisely, she invites her pet student home for dinner into her private sphere. There she introduces her husband, who is black, and suddenly one wonders if she sees Madeline as the daughter they might have had. But Madeline devilishly undercuts any filial fantasies by cornering the surprised husband in the kitchen and blatantly offering herself to him.
Back in the brownstone where the students gather for class, the action makes a theatrical shift to outright cruelty. Madeline is dismayed when Evangeline (getting revenge from the night before, maybe?) invites her insecure mother to join in the class, and Regina feels flattered enough to agree. But in the shrill final act, Madeline — with the acting students as her chorus — turns the tables on the teacher.
Parker is riveting as the self-styled cult leader whose vision fails. Infuriating in her heyday as the irresponsible acting coach, she makes Evangeline weak and despicable in her downfall. July, too, excels in projecting weakness in the key role of Madeline’s mother; like Parker’s character, the more Regina tries to control the vulnerable girl, the less she succeeds. And no wonder, with a force of nature like Howard playing her daughter.
As upfront as the camerawork is the dazzling sound design, which gives rhythm to the visuals with unexpected and unidentifiable sounds and snatches of music.
Production companies: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Forager Films
Cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Director-screenwriter: Josephine Decker
Producers: Krista Parris, Elizabeth Rao
Executive producers: Michael Decker, Peter Gilbert, Edwin Linker, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Sherman, Joe Swanberg, Jane Wu
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Charlotte Royer
Costume designer: Sarah Maiorino
Editors: Harrison Atkins, Josephine Decker
Music: Caroline Shaw
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
World sales: Visit Films
Domestic sales: Paradigm
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