2018, NR, 93 min. Directed by Josephine Decker. Starring Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker, Julee Cerda, Okwui Okpokwasili.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 31, 2018
A few years ago, I was talking with a noted scriptwriter and stand-up who dismissed the idea of improvised drama as something exceptional: Every artist improvises, they said, it’s just that most creatives have the good grace to finish the work before they take it out in public. Madeline’s Madeline, the third feature from writer/director Josephine Decker, has received plaudits in part for being experimental cinema, and for the collaborative nature of its development – a yearlong process with her cast, most especially rising young actress Helena Howard. But the inherent coda is that some experiments fail.
Madeline's Madeline is essentially an interior character study recounted primarily from Madeline’s point of view. A talented young performer (and Howard's fearless performance rounds her out as such), she's going through what is no understatement to call a tough time. After assaulting her mother (July) with an iron, and a brief period in a mental health institution, Madeline joins an experimental art troupe headed by the visionary/pretentious Evangeline (Parker), who is fumbling towards the theme of her next show. Madeline's trauma soon becomes far more interesting to her than her current concept (an ill-formed series of rehearsals about animals).
Unfortunately, what should have naturalistic depth seems oddly superficial, and an attempt to dispose of traditional structure becomes episodic. As with many failed experiments, there are still, at least, some interesting takeaways. In this case, it's Ashley Connor's radical and entrancing cinematography, and the subtle use of depth of field to capture Madeline's mental state. There are moments of real creative risk, such as an unexpected kinship to the 2012 POV remake of William Lustig's underground classic Maniac, and a final sequence that evokes the wolf mask dance finale from executive producer Joe Swanberg's Silver Bullets – until it turns into "Dream of the '90s" from Portlandia. Strip away the sometimes dreamlike, sometimes vérité camera work and, well, bluntly, if your patience with interpretive dance is low, then this story is definitely not for you. It's what's supposed to be an insightful view of the workings of the troubled teen artistic mind, but unclear and sometimes self-contradicting motivations from surrounding characters undercut the context.
But the biggest problem is with Decker's implicit thesis about the connectivity of creativity, mental disorders, and art as therapy, especially when Madeline's history of harm and self-harm is tied to her performance: If you dissect what has happened, and take her POV away, it's a far less charming narrative than it seems. There’s something very off-putting about that trite happy ending, where actors get so deep into the character that they endanger the life of another performer, and it's a resolution that ignores pivotal questions at the heart of avant-garde theatre about the consensual engagement of the audience.