On the surface Madeline (Helena Howard) is your average bi-racial 16-year-old, she frequently clashes with her seemingly overprotective mother Regina (Miranda July), is learning to navigate boys, and uses theatre as her creative outlet. However, Madeline’s mind paints a different picture.
Prone to volatile mood swings, and frequently blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, Madeline’s mental illness is often mistaken for simply being weird. The only one who appears to understand her is Evangeline, the theatre troupe director who takes a motherly approach to her talented protégé and uses Madeline’s stories as inspiration for a new play. It is only when Regina starts to become more of a presence in Evangeline’s work that Madeline begins to see that line between motivation and exploitation is as murky as the images in her own head.
Boldly placing the audience within Madeline’s mind at times, Madeline’s Madeline captures the almost claustrophobic nature of mental disorders in a palpable way. The sound of breathing becomes a key secondary character in the film, one that further accentuates the suffocating feel that director Josephine Decker’s camera work evokes. Effortlessly blurring the lines of Madeline’s reality, Decker effectively provides an emotionally resonating exploration of the teen’s mental health that never feels exploitative.
As experimental as the film is, it succeeds in making a challenging work that feels surprisingly accessible.
There comes a point in Madeline’s Madeline where a member of Madeline’s theatre group openly questions Evangeline (Molly Parker) intentions. It is a self-reflexive moment that is ultimately lost on Evangeline, but not the audience or Decker herself. What starts off as a film about the complexities of mental illness evolves into a stirring introspective commentary on liberal white appropriation of other people’s experiences.
It is Decker’s instinctive awareness of both her character’s plight and her own role in telling this story that makes Madeline’s Madeline such an astonishing work.
Of course, all of this would mean nothing without a riveting lead to bind the film together. Helena Howard gives one of the most electrifying debut performances to hit the screen in decades. Her stunning execution, the scene where Madeline mimics her mother is worth the price of admission alone, coupled with Josephine Decker’s bold direction makes Madeline’s Madeline a mesmerizing and unforgettable film.
Madeline’s Madeline opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday August 24th.