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Film Review: “Madeline’s Madeline” Struggles with Story, but Impresses As Art

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 23rd, 2018

Film poster: “Madeline’s Madeline”

Madeline’s Madeline (Josephine Decker, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Josephine Decker’s third fiction feature, Madeline’s Madeline, combines visually evocative cinematography, aurally stimulating music and intellectually exhilarating editing in a cinematic mix that somehow doesn’t quite add up to what should be the brilliant sum of those impressive parts. Featuring a magnetic performance from young lead Helena Howard (making her debut) – ably supported by Molly Parker (Weirdos), and a little less ably by Miranda July (The Future) – the film does not suffer from lack of talent. Rather, it’s the main story that repels, unless one is a fan of performance art and experimental theater, in which case the deconstruction of the emotionally wrought process of improvisation and rehearsal might be just the thing. If so, then hop right in, as Madeline’s Madeline affords the viewer ample time in the midst of the creative process, from start to finish.

Perhaps I am a bit unfair, as there is much to recommend here, even if the script doesn’t speak to me. Aside from the actors’ collective at the center of 16-year-old Madeline’s world, there is the reality of Madeline (Howard), herself. A troubled teen, she is prone to violent outbursts, which her mother, Regina (July) – not all that stable, either – barely manages to control. The bright spot in Madeline’s day is her time with the troupe managed by Evangeline (Parker), a director more concerned with staging the perfect show than with acting in loco parentis to this obviously fragile person (the only minor in the group). Madeline appears to revere Evangeline, at least at first, seeing in her a magical outlet for the turbulent thoughts within. And so we have a kind of maternal love triangle, with Madeline unsure of what she wants. Looking at the film in this way, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for teenage self-discovery.

Unfortunately, though Decker (Butter on the Latch) does a fine job blurring the lines between dream, performance and reality, the fact is that watching people work through bland, overused platitudes of pain and suffering to arrive at a meaningful (to them) truth is just not that interesting (to me). The movie is strongest when we are in Madeline’s head; it is less so when we enter Regina’s or Evangeline’s. And though Decker flirts with additional concepts of greater consequence – such as race (Madeline is of mixed parentage, and Evangeline is married to an African-American man, and pregnant) and sex (Madeline attempts a seduction of said husband) – she spends much more time on the mechanics of the spectacle within the film, to the detriment of the larger stakes, metaphor notwithstanding.

Helena Howard in MADELINE’S MADELINE ©Oscilloscope

That said, I love one sudden cut away from a scene of Madeline walking down a beach as a turtle to one of her writhing on stage, with Evangeline commenting (to Madeline’s “what happened?”): “You were a sea turtle and then you were a woman playing a sea turtle.” To anyone who has ever tried to inhabit a role, only to lose focus, that moment will ring true. And Howard is a true find. Assured beyond her years, she commands our attention throughout. Parker is almost her equal, though July – saddled with shrill lines and overreactions (so perhaps it’s not her fault) – sometimes struggles. I may not have enjoyed the central narrative, then, but I found much of the periphery worthy of great cinema.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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