Arts movie review

‘Madeline’s Madeline’ is part mental illness, part performance, and whole immersion

Would you like some sugar with that cup of anxiety?

Madeline’s Madeline
Directed by Josephine Decker
Screenplay by Josephine Decker
Starring Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

If a good movie draws you into the emotions of the scene, Madeline’s Madeline is a wannabe-blockbuster...if you’re into holding your breath for ninety minutes with a decidedly unfun adrenaline rush at every twist. The movie is as much about the titular character as it is about mental illness. And for somebody who has experienced such illness before, this film can suck you back into those emotions and leave you winded, but perhaps also introspective.

Madeline’s Madeline is an independent film that shows the ugly side of life from Madeline’s perspective. Madeline (Helena Howard) is a sixteen year old girl with a history of mental illness growing up in New York City and dreaming about attending a performing arts school. But on the surface she’s weird and friendless. Her only chance to be herself is at a local theater troupe, where every day she’s somebody completely different. And where the only person who understands her is theater director Angeline (Molly Parker), who has a keen eye for talent and opportunity.

Josephine Decker captures Madeline’s turbulent life through a sensitive lens. Madeline’s Madeline is disjointed, dreamy, and poignant; the line between real and fake is so blurred that the audience finds themselves struggling like Madeline to pinpoint what really happened. While at times the style seems too distracting, the real world snaps back to focus like a rubber band, smarting and jarring.

Madeline’s Madeline is full of suspense, surprise and surreality. Madeline and her mother (Miranda July) toggle between dysfunction and affection. On her own, Madeline is wildly spontaneous and, for a neurotypical person, may be difficult to follow or relate to. And though the title suggests that Madeline is herself, at the end of the movie you could ask yourself “Who is Madeline really?” and potentially come up empty-handed.

The direction of the film is ambitious and sometimes unwieldy. This is not a movie you can watch absently: you have to be present at every moment in order to understand the sudden plot turns. So if you’re looking for something idle or feel-good, look somewhere else.

Even though the story mostly moves forward, it’s debatable if the characters do. The movie seemingly ends before we see any development with or between the three main women, and when the credits suddenly roll, you might find yourself feeling abruptly shaken out of slumber.

Madeline’s Madeline is taxing to comprehend, and the reward is debatable. The stylistic choices are undoubtedly aesthetic, but the story seems to suffer in time with Madeline’s illness. But that’s just my take on it: this movie is as subjective as a dream, and the pull into dreamland can be just as entertaining.