When writing movies, or even writing about movies, one of the most-asked questions is, “whose story is it?”. Which character does the story follow, and why should we care about them? This question, and many more, lies at the heart of Josephine Decker's magnificent and magical Madeline's Madeline.
If you were to rely on plot synopses from iMDb (never rely on iMDb), you'd think Madeline's Madeline was the story of Evangeline (Molly Parker), a theatre director creating a new work who becomes "concerned" when her "young star takes her performance too seriously.” That sounds like a good story! But it's not the story of this movie, and to read the movie in this way would be a fundamental misreading and underestimation of it.
Rather, Madeline's Madeline is the story of Madeline (Helena Howard, making an astonishing debut here), a 16-year-old girl with mental health issues and a flair for performance. Bullied at school and scorned at home, she's trapped in her own sense of self, which wavers from minute to minute. Though on medication, it's hard for her to escape her mental health maladies - depicted in the film with subjective sound design, voices weaving in and out of the mix. Howard's performance is captivating, drawing us into every emotional peak and trough as she goes about her journey.
Madeline’s one real respite and outlet is the drama workshops she takes on a regular basis, led by aforementioned director Evangeline. Taking part in abstract, physical drama exercises, Madeline lets out primal, raw emotions, whether embodying a cat or devising uncomfortably personal work. Acting and theatre proves powerfully helpful to Madeline, allowing her to escape from herself for a while - though, as the movie acknowledges, it's wrong to use it as therapy when everyone else isn't on the same page. These scenes serve a double purpose: to advance the narrative of the theatre group, obviously, but also to communicate Madeline's story in an ecstatic, expressive fashion.
It's when Madeline's dramatic identity starts bleeding into real life, however, that things get complicated. At first, those lines are blurred only at home. She brings her cat character home with her, slinking and purring about the house before her micromanaging worrywort mother (a terrifically nervous Miranda July). Madeline's mother-daughter relationships are central to the film, whether with her real mum or her surrogate mother Evangeline, and the three actresses play off each other in ways both naturalistic and surreal. When Evangeline starts bringing Madeline's mother into the production, however, Madeline's prime source of anxiety takes over her one respite from it, and she no longer has anywhere to escape to. It’s a bizarre and offputting development that’ll induce squirms all over the audience.
Madeline’s Madeline gets really interesting where it becomes about the process of creation itself. Decker makes a number of comparisons between childbirth and motherhood and the creative process - not necessarily original in concept, but certainly in execution. As the film progresses, Evangeline's show becomes more and more about Madeline and her mental illness, the director either oblivious to the effects that has on her young protege, or consciously exploitative of them. At one point, a character questions the “optics” of Evangeline, a white woman, telling the story of Madeline, a mixed-race/black girl. One gets the impression that's also a self-reflective question on the part of Decker, herself a white woman. And is Evangeline telling a story about motherhood, or prison, or mental illness, or Madeline herself? Is Madeline just a combination of those things?
There’s a lot going on in here, and to creative types it'll sing louder and purer than a songbird. As Madeline’s Madeline reaches its enigmatic, abstract, physical-theatre-inspired ending, it morphs from a story about a character, into a story about a story about that character, into that character wrestling back her own story. Unsurprisingly for a movie that opens with an overt statement that it’s “all a metaphor,” there’s a lot of self-examination to be found inside. I've honestly seen nothing quite like it.
Whose stories can we tell, and what responsibilities do we have in telling them? There's no one-size-fits-all answer to those questions. But Madeline's Madeline goes on a hell of a ride trying to find one.