Josephine Decker’s narratively impressionistic, technically experimental “Madeline’s Madeline” may be one of the most challenging coming-of-age movies ever made. It follows troubled (and perhaps mentally disturbed) but clearly talented teen Madeline (extraordinary newcomer Helena Howard) as she searches for her own identity, caught between the pressures put on her by her recessive but clinging mother Regina (Miranda July) and her demanding, unconventional acting teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker).
One can easily imagine a scenario along these lines being played in afterschool-special style, but that’s not Decker’s way. Madeline is a girl who seems to be genuinely, if intermittently, unbalanced, and Howard gives her a feral quality—something that’s accentuated by her “lessons” in becoming a cat or a turtle or a pig, wearing animal costumes or masks. Evangeline is presented as obsessed and self-absorbed, while Regina is so sheepishly accommodating that she could easily be mistaken for a human dishrag. At one point she’ll even allow herself to be dragooned into participating in a class exercise, which does not go well.
Even still, the picture could have retained a modicum of normalcy if it were not for all the visual razzmatazz. Cinematographer Ashley Connor, using a fervid handheld approach, offers images that are often oddly framed and beset with a halo effect, and the editing by Decker and Harrison Atkins adds to the deliberately woozy, disorienting effect. The score by Caroline Shaw—which seems to consist of an occasional jagged, shrill metallic scraping, adds to the overall impression of unease.
Then there are the choreographed movements of Evangeline’s class, which, combined with the students’ odd chanting, makes for a background filled with noise and clutter, as well as plenty of the animal masks that she seems to favor. The result is to give “Madeline’s Madeline” a fractured feel that, one might argue, is a cinematic approximation of the interior mental processes of its young protagonist. Many viewers will have a difficult time following any narrative line at all, and become hostile to the film, which they will consider deliberately opaque and off-putting.
One can’t dismiss the picture altogether, however, simply because Howard’s performance is so overwhelming. One suspects, however, that its greatest appeal might be to acting students, who may be able to make a personal connection with the strange hubbub Decker has created that the rest of us won’t feel.
One can sympathize with Madeline’s efforts to shape her own version of herself rather than following the dictates of either of her two mother figures. Still, by the time that Decker brings things to a close with a company dance routine on a New York street, you might conclude that “Madeline’s Madeline” is more about a filmmaker’s pretensions than a young girl’s inner turmoil. It can be seen as a cinematic experiment, but for most viewers one suspects it will be a failed one.