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By Connor Dalton
16th September 2018

Drama can serve as a liberating experience; through the guidance of a director to take you out of your comfort zone, one can inhabit a persona devoid of our hindrances and misfortunes. But in Josephine Decker’s ‘Madeline’s Madeline’, she probes the correlation between our emotions and the art form to discern to what extent can the merging of these expressions begin to incite damage. Adhering to a stream-of-consciousness style used to represent the titular protagonist’s psyche, it is a film that’s deeply poignant, distinctive and thematically rich by ways of an intimately confronting fever dream. By the end, it’ll arguably be a film you’ll revere more than you would have enjoyed, but one thing indisputable is that Decker’s ambition, despite some imperfections, has formed something mesmeric.

Irrepressible teenager Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard) has been relishing her acting classes with a freeform theatre troupe. Following a recent stint in a psychiatric ward, she has found a strange sense of ebullience from her rehearsals under the tutelage of her director Evangeline (Molly Parker), for whom she garners a sizeable admiration. The same veneration can’t be stated, however, for her rapidly deteriorating relationship with her mother, Regina (Miranda July), a helicopter parent petrified of her daughter’s burgeoning sexuality and persistently aggressive behaviour. Madeline’s working through many issues, but where she feels most comfortable - albeit pretending to be a cat or a turtle - is on the stage, and in finding friendship with Evangeline, she starts to feel safe sharing stories of her troubled history and violent dreams.


Both women want to understand the depth of Madeline’s mental illness greater. For Evangeline, she sees an opportunity for Madeline’s scars to integrate with the creative process to serve her art. While for her mother, despite her maternal paranoia bordering on irremediable, she's desperate to break their barrier of disconnection. The result forces Madeline to fight for the ownership of her mental health from both exploitation and appropriation, leading to profound consequences that will impact all three of them.

To give away any more of the plot would be unnecessary, as this is a film best experienced going in as cold as possible and feeling the full potency of its searing thematic punch, as ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ addresses some considerably complex themes and does so with an emotional rawness effortlessly interweaved with an innately visual lyricism. The film astutely examines the preoccupations we can have with mental illness, and for those engaged with somebody afflicted, how we can easily tend to appropriate it for our own security. Madeline’s pitfalls are manifold, and throughout the film we witness the two most prominent figures in her life employ this as justification to arrogate her for their own exploitation. When the film probes these shifting power dynamics, it is a fascinating assessment that is rarely portrayed on screen with such honesty. Mental illness isn’t something we can use to typecast or control, and Decker’s appraisal on the toxic fixations we can have for those who struggle with the disorder is masterfully captivating.

Mental illness isn’t something we can use to typecast or control, and Decker’s appraisal on the toxic fixations we can have for those who struggle with the disorder is masterfully captivating.

However, what anchors the crux of the film’s conflict is undoubtedly the astonishing debut from Helena Howard. With the camera centred to Madeline’s every emotion, Howard injects her character with such an authentic fluctuation between emotions, leaping from brash to charismatic to melancholic with such grace, it cements one of the greatest breakout performances in recent memory. Howard is utterly electric in a role that demands a performance that can reorientate between an internal hesitancy and disturbing unpredictability, and it is an absolute joy watching a young actress magnetise the screen to the effect she does. She more than holds her own opposite impressive turns from Parker and July, with both exuding layered turns as Madeline’s manipulative foils.

With that said, ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ is not an easy film to watch. Choosing to play with your patience and intentionally be intermittently off-putting, it is arguably more favourable for those invested in challenging cinema. The film can get lost amongst its experimental approach, with the dizzying cinematography of frequent close-ups and constant focus-shifting certain to earn the ire of some. However, for the most part, the film’s indulgence in visceral flourishes is forgivable knowing it’s done with purpose. The final twenty minutes exemplifies this, concluding the film with such exhilarating prowess it proves transcendent, firmly eliminating the threat of its style weighing it down. Yet for some, it may prove too difficult to adhere to its anomalous approach in both style and substance.

‘Madeline’s Madeline’ is both a film about how we choose to perceive the pain of others and the psychodramas that can shape from bleeding our real lives into our art. In amalgamating the two, Decker is able to create an unflinchingly provocative piece of work that is able to form a compellingly emotional dissection. The film, like its protagonist, exists entirely in a world of unconventionality, and although that will prove testing for some, it is where the film ultimately thrives. Offering an invigorating experience like no other, ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ signifies talent in a league of its own.

RUN TIME: 1h 33m
CAST: Helena Howard
Molly Parker
Miranda July
Okwui Okpokwasili
Felipe Bonilla
Lisa Tharps
Julee Cerda
Curtiss Cook
Dana Eskelson
Ivan Martin
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Josephine Decker
PRODUCERS: Elizabeth Rao
Krista Parris
Looking for more Sydney Underground Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights. 
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