One of the best films at Fantasia 2018 is Madeline’s Madeline, a declaration that Josephine Decker is becoming a major American talent. Her 2014 one-two punch Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a pair of ostensible thrillers if you only read the plot description, showcased her affinity for an elusive form of storytelling, more concerned with a collage of images and overlapping dialogue than straightforward narratives. While the slightly more conventional Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, featuring a supporting turn from Joe Swanberg, was my favorite of the two, both films displayed bold stylistic intelligence, even if they were too slight or nebulous to leave a lasting impression. Madeline’s Madeline operates in much the same mode as her earlier films but it bears a weight that sets it apart. Here, Decker combines her dreamlike style with a clarity of vision and a caliber of performance beyond anything she’s done before.
Those performances come courtesy of newcomer Helena Howard and Miranda July, who play young Madeline and her mother, Regina, respectively. Madeline, a 16-year-old actress with an apparent history of mental health problems and a combative, difficult relationship with her mother, has joined a theatrical production directed by Evangeline (Molly Parker). Don’t ask me what the play is about, though. I couldn’t tell you and Evangeline doesn’t seem to have much of an idea either. Instead, Evangeline thrives off Madeline’s energy and rehearsals consist mostly of young actors running around in pig masks, acting like animals or, eventually, reenacting scenes from Madeline’s life. It’s apparent that Evangeline fancies herself a second mother to Madeline and would perhaps like to be her only mother, setting the table for a casual antagonism between her and Regina. Madeline is torn between the two women but of course flees into the arms of the theater, seeking to distance herself from her home life.
Whether in rehearsal or in scenes between Madeline and her mother, Decker’s technique complicates the space, constantly shifting point of view in a flurry of images. No image here is surreal out of context, but taken together they form a dreamlike tapestry that gives off the distinct impression of drifting. When spoken word intrudes upon these collages, many times it is indirect, either belonging to a voice off-screen or out of the scene entirely: a disembodied, decontextualized sentence recalled from an earlier incident. Thus, as scenes of Madeline at rehearsal might now carry the weight of an earlier fight with her mother, so to do those domestic moments enter into a continuum of performance that becomes difficult to parse.
Madeline and her mother share only one scene together that cannot be described as combative. Their relationship issues have been ongoing for years now and neither’s mental state is helped by the other. Regina, especially, is overbearing beyond reason, attributing every one of Madeline’s actions to her unspecified mental illness. While their scenes together might be relatable in the same way as last year’s Lady Bird, a weighty animosity between mother and daughter provides a nervous energy that is sometimes so tense it’s terrifying. No doubt Howard and July give two of the best performances of the year, turning common interactions into explosive confrontations routinely staged in the front seat of Regina’s car, less busy visually than many of Evangeline’s rehearsals though never any less enthralling.
While I found it impossible to take my eyes off any of the three principal actors, I must note that Howard makes one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory. Madeline is a role that so often relies on looks and gestures in lieu of words. When she’s asked to play a cat, she does so with sincerity and a fidelity of motion that’s consistently arresting when it could easily come off as corny. But she’s also capable of elevating every line Decker gives her to a fever pitch, evidenced by a climactic moment at a rehearsal her mother attends.
I have one quibble with that ending. When everything builds to the height of its drama and Decker’s intentions are made clear, a character asks a question that so bluntly reiterates a point already well made. It’s such a roughly inelegant moment and feels out of place in a film that otherwise clearly trusts an audience to pick up what it’s putting down. It’s a mark that goes down relatively easy, though, as what follows is a rare sequence of earned and necessary exuberance.
Directed by Josephine Decker; written by Josephine Decker; starring Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker, and Okwui Okpokwasili; 93 minutes.