As if growing up isn’t difficult enough, the titular heroine of Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline (stellar newcomer Helena Howard) has some skeletons in her closet and at least one stint in a psychiatric ward under her belt, even before she finishes high school. While she awaits word on possible acceptance to Juilliard’s Drama Division, she fills her time participating in strange, hypnotic theater improvisation exercises with a troupe led by Evangeline (Molly Parker), a controlling, motherly director whose focused attention appears to be filling in the parenting gaps left by Madeline’s biological mother Regina (Miranda July). Regina, a nervous and malleable presence, just can’t seem to keep up with the mercurial needs of the whip-smart but wounded teenager.
That the audience is never fully invited into the hard facts of Madeline’s predicament appears to be a large part of Decker’s point. In the hazy opening scene, a nurse, or perhaps an actress playing a nurse (Okwui Okpokwasili), leans into frame and proclaims, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor. The emotions you are having are not your own; they are someone else’s ... You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” This scene sets up a journey that will leave more questions unanswered than answered, more mysteries unsolved than solved. What is and is not a metaphor, what is and is not reality or delusion, danger or safety, is left to the viewer to uncover. These uncertainties end up feeling as frustrating and thrilling as adolescence itself.
Anyone who has ever participated in noisemaking, extremity-waving theatrical exercises will immediately recognize the eccentric preoccupations of Evangeline’s drama company. For others, it won’t take long to get the point that experimental theater is a hotbed for both authenticity and pretension, and Madeline (along with Decker’s film as a whole) messily seeks to pinpoint the threshold where identity and fantasy meet and separate, the place where existence and performance comingle. As ecstatic scenes of Madeline’s acting exercises are blended with cryptic scenes from what seems like her real life, the film swerves and swells, giving just enough information to move the barebones plot along, and just little enough detail to make the audience truly comfortable.
The result of this obfuscating is a film that feels like a teenager itself, both desperate to know who she is and utterly convinced of who she is, all at the same time. The tension seems entirely intentional, as if Decker wants her viewers to abandon preconceptions and trust a world that pendulums between cozy and treacherous without warning, much like how this country treats its teenagers in reality, no matter their mental health diagnosis. Madeline winds up not knowing which mother figure to trust more, the biological one — more familiar but prone to failure — or the assured director who might be using Madeline’s raw, nervy talent for unsavory, selfish purposes.
Building to a cathartic climax both experimental and excellent, Madeline’s Madeline is itself an exercise. It feels both honest and contrived, authentic and manipulated. And anyone who has ever stood at the precipice of adulthood, fearful and desirous of the landscape ahead, will feel uneasily at home in Madeline’s frenzied world.