There is a lot one can say about Madeline’s Madeline, and I feel like one’s interpretation of its contents will shift and evolve with time. It is such an immediate sensory experience that you aren’t really able to digest its facets during the runtime itself, and even a few hours afterwards, its striking nature continues to overpower one’s analytical functions. I will peel it back as much as I can right now, with the hope that more meaning will come the longer it sits with me. Certainly, in terms of plot, it’s not difficult to summarize: we have an adolescent girl named Madeline (newcomer Helena Howard) involved with a theatrical group run by a woman she idolizes named Evangeline (Molly Parker). Conversely, the other woman in her life, mom Regina (Miranda July), is someone she can’t seem to get along with. Regina imposes a lot of rules, forces her to do things she doesn’t want to, and treats her like a fragile leaf because of her mental illness (which is never specified, but is implied to be bipolar disorder). Madeline is everything Regina isn’t: impulsive, unpredictable, exuberant, and reckless. The acting world is the perfect outlet for her spirit, because she can exercise the energy that Regina fears and make it productive. Evangeline recognizes this, and grows close with her pupil, wanting to transform Madeline’s life experiences into an easily-consumable art form. But can it be transformed in that way? This is the question Josephine Decker wrestles with, both diegetically and non-diegetically.
The greatest difficulty with this film is squaring Decker’s method with Evangeline’s. If we are to take Evangeline’s approach as wrongheaded, then what makes Decker’s portrayal of Madeline—one that is deliberately fragmented, chaotic, and rambunctious—any better? Because Madeline is fictional, Decker has some leeway in a way that Evangeline (who, in the diegetic world, is as real as Madeline) does not. She is not imposing her artistic sensibilities on actual people, but rather characters of her own making. Further to that, Evangeline’s method involves synthesizing Madeline’s pain into simplistic artifice, treating it almost solely in terms of how much capital it can accrue in front of whatever audience this group draws. Decker, on the other hand, does not seem to care much about her box office returns, because she knows that experimental features only play well to niche audiences. She is more concerned about capturing the specific riptide of Madeline’s persona, which is very much colored by her mental illness, but also one that revels in life’s possibilities. This revelry is precisely in the kind of tumultuous frenzy and elation that Decker recreates through her rapid editing and disorienting close-up shots, and through these techniques, we can understand the person Madeline is. And not just her selfhood, but why someone like Regina views her in the way she does. There is nothing easy or streamlined in Decker’s method, and that is the key here: Madeline is not someone who is done justice any other way, including the way Evangeline pursues.
I do not say Decker’s approach is free of shortcomings. It’s possible she does not entirely succeed in some areas, such as integrating Madeline’s biracial heritage into the mix and making it of equal concern as her mental illness. I would love for a biracial critic to sound off on the matter, because this is one of those rare films where someone’s biracial status is inflected in the way their world looks. For now, I’m content with what Decker achieves here, which is nothing less than singular. It’s a film awash in risks, and the rewards are plenteous. The biggest one of all is Helena Howard’s introduction to the world. Forget Bradley Cooper’s film: this is our “star is born” moment, because how else to describe her performance as anything other than one of the best debuts in recent memory? What a gift we’ve been given, and may it flourish with abundance.