(London Film Festival, October 17th, 2018, ICA Cinema, 20:50)
Madeline (Helena Howard) got the part! She’s going to play the lead in a theater piece! Except the lead wears sweatpants like Madeline’s. And has a cat like Madeline’s. And is holding a steaming hot iron next to her mother’s face, like Madeline is. Madeline has become an integral part of a prestigious physical theater troupe. When the workshop's ambitious director Evangeline (Molly Parker) pushes the teenager to weave her rich interior world and troubled history with her mother Regina (Miranda July) into their collective art, the lines between performance and reality begin to blur. The resulting battle between imagination and appropriation rips out of the rehearsal space and through all three women’s lives.
Madeline is a biracial New Jersey teenager who wrestles with an often fraught relationship with her mother Regina. Madeline is deeply involved with an immersive, improvisatory theater production, whose director Evangeline becomes obsessed with her magnetic new star, and begins to adapt the production using personal revelations drawn from Madeline’s experiences. It’s obvious that Madeline is experiencing some sort of mental health issue, and dealing with things that are emotional and beyond anyone’s control but hers, and she doesn’t even know how to deal with it, and other people are trying to take control of her life. In any circumstance where it may seem like life, situations, and things are chaotic, it doesn’t help when people try to take control. You've to figure it out yourself. The film never labels a diagnosis for Madeline. As the audience, you get to put that in your own head. As life and art reflect and reframe each other, the film becomes a hallucinatory hall of mirrors; and a window into a consciousness in flux.
Regina is a weird arty woman. She launched into a speech about fear, and how all of life is fear, and if you’re going to try to avoid it, why even do anything? She's a very erratic character. Early on, Regina developed a certain wariness around Madeline, which suited the testy, tug-of-war relationship between the film’s mother and daughter. Evangeline is a theater director who takes a close and complicated interest in Madeline. All these actors are in a troupe, in which the director is improvising a process to make a piece of work, and then becomes obsessed with this girl and write a piece about her. Evangeline is actually an incredibly loving, dedicated, compassionate woman who always makes ample and immediate time and space on set to discuss what's happening with cast and crew. There's a lot of processing people’s thoughts and feelings and politics. As a person who’s done loads of traditional film and television, to stop shooting for twenty minutes to make sure that everybody feels heard, it makes her kind of nervous. She’s whip smart. She can pull together a rap about what’s going on right in front of her in the moment, and it’s hilarious, brilliant, smart, cutting, witty. We're truly in a complicated life creating art situation.
Set in contemporary New York City, and the volatile headspace of it's title character, the film explores the emotions, perceptions, and struggles of a brilliant and troubled young woman whose life becomes a performance. "Madeline’s Madeline" utilizes a welcome expressionistic approach that imbues her subjects with a vibrant sense of urgency. The film displays a rare sensitivity for capturing the messy struggles of discovering a sense of one's self that defies easy narrative categorization. Decker creates a poetic flow of images, as gauzy and impressionistic as dreams, set to choral susurrations and given to a sometimes jolting, always thrilling spontaneity. The scenario led to a dramatic exploration of the tensions faced by many families. The nature/nurture question around mental illness is really confusing. As a parent, are you contributing to your child’s mental illness, or are you mentally ill and creating an illness within the child?
When a child is mentally ill, it can bring out some of the more destructive habits of the parent, so there’s something there. It's about responsibility in artmaking, about responsibility in this art we're making right now, were life-changing. They're honestly favorite parts of the process, and that’s why they became a climax of the film. If you’re going to make art this way, people are going to be mad. And that’s something you better get comfortable with. Obviously, not to say you want to exploit anyone or manipulate anyone, but you've to take the brutal life lessons that that offers. The feeling of playing with fire is tangible throughout the making. The film starts deep into that dangerous dark place of how to create without conforming to rigid, pre-packaged notions of where you’re headed. And we emerged from that abyss, creatively invigorated and alive.
"Madeline's Madeline" is visionary, inspirational, and ingenious. In art you push the limit and in our society nowadays people are tiptoeing around actual art, actual creation. They're making things to make money. There’s no originality. They’re doing things to appeal to the mass media, the general public, and it’s crap most of the time. It’s remakes, or the same stuff that we saw last year, or two years ago with a different actor. But what about things that are pushing the boundaries? Because that’s what art is when you didn’t have a voice and that’s why theater was created to push boundaries, and show people what’s going on in the world.