Madeline’s Madeline first look: an unusually bold teen movie that bridges trauma and art

Josephine Decker pauses only to grapple with her own working methods in this thrilling, formally daring drama about an emotionally fraught teenage girl.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2018. Reviewed at the 2018 Berlinale Film Festival.

Paul O’Callaghan
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Helena Howard as Madeline in Madeline’s Madeline

Helena Howard as Madeline in Madeline’s Madeline

Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, unveiled together at the 2014 Berlinale, announced Josephine Decker as a filmmaker willing to throw pretty much anything against the wall in her efforts to probe the recesses of her young female protagonists’ fractured psyches. The former is a beguiling fusion of wry mumblecore realism and trippy psychodrama, the latter a Terrence Malick-infused pastoral thriller with a disquieting sexual undercurrent, but neither film quite coalesces into anything more than the sum of its compellingly disparate parts.

Initially, Madeline’s Madeline feels of a piece with its predecessors, formally daring and yet a little stifled by its reverence to its cinematic forebears. In opening scenes that oscillate between the wistful whimsy of Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and the shrieking hysteria of Black Swan, Decker launches the viewer headfirst into the headspace of Madeline (Helena Howard), a 16-year-old perpetually on the precipice of emotional overwhelm. Her domestic life is fraught to say the least, as evinced by a scene in which she appears to attack her unsuspecting mother Regina (Miranda July) with an iron. We also witness her antics as part of an experimental theatre troupe, as she assumes the persona of a cat and flails around like a sea turtle, at points seemingly unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.

As this relentless sensory bombardment threatens to grate, a more conventional coming-of-age narrative begins to take shape, and the film finds its own captivating voice. It becomes clear that Madeline is dealing with some form of mental illness, while her dysfunctional relationship with the fragile Regina jars strikingly with the more nurturing bond she seems to have formed with Evangeline (Molly Parker), her composed, charismatic drama teacher.

Howard with Molly Parker as Evangeline

Howard with Molly Parker as Evangeline

Decker’s earlier work was intriguing but often frustratingly opaque. Here, the three stellar central performances harmonise to deliver a coherent and compelling emotional throughline. As Madeline takes her tentative first steps into the adult world, Decker’s incessantly inquisitive, intensely subjective style of filmmaking captures both the dizzying joy and abject terror of adolescence. The scenarios are familiar – awkward experiments with porn and booze, the quest to lose one’s virginity – but the director’s refusal to romanticise or trivialise her protagonist’s plights ensures that their depiction feels bracingly fresh.

Not content to merely deliver one of the boldest teen movies in recent memory, Decker finally shifts her focus towards thorny, timely questions of authorship and cultural appropriation. Enraptured by her young muse’s willingness to draw on her own trauma for the sake of her art, Evangeline makes Madeline the subject of her latest production, seemingly oblivious to the notion that it might be questionable for an affluent white woman to co-opt the story of a vulnerable biracial teenager. But while Evangeline’s behaviour borders on the queasily exploitative, her fixation and flattery ultimately embolden Madeline to reclaim her own identity.

By Decker’s own admission, the creative processes depicted on screen closely mirror those of Madeline’s Madeline itself, so it’s laudable to see the emerging auteur grapple so transparently and self-reflexively with her own methods. That she does so while delivering a flat-out thrilling stream-of-consciousness climax seals this as something very special indeed – a film that is at once intimidatingly dense and breezily concise, uncompromisingly experimental and riotously entertaining.

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