‘Madeline’s Madeline’ Film Review: Experimental Psychodrama Dives Deep, Surfaces With a New Star

Director Josephine Decker touches on universal truths rarely found inside a multiplex with the help of striking newcomer Helena Howard

Some movies are statistically designed to be seen by as many viewers as possible. Others are handcrafted in express defiance of commercialism. “Madeline’s Madeline” was definitely not created with mainstream tastes in mind. But by pushing to the edges of her own iconoclastic vision, director Josephine Decker touches on universal truths rarely found inside a multiplex.
Will Decker’s experimental psychodrama — her third feature after festival favorites “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”– be for you? Well, the very first line ought to give some indication: “You are not the cat,” an anonymous woman intones hypnotically. “You are inside the cat.” It should be said that things get much weirder from there.
So yes, you’ll have to be ready to go with the film’s free-form flow. But the rewards are considerable, beginning with the discovery of striking newcomer Helena Howard playing the the teenage Madeline. And when we meet her, she does indeed seem to think she’s the cat, purring and nuzzling against her placid mother, Regina (filmmaker Miranda July, “Me and You and Everyone We Know”).
When the two fight, though, it’s in a way that feels darker than the ordinary tension between a 16-year-old girl and her mom. The teasing and charged flirting from local boys offer clues to their history, as does Regina’s incessant anxiety. But it’s not until Madeline forms a close bond with an avant-garde drama group that the picture starts to come into focus — at which point Decker immediately smudges the lens.
The group’s director, Evangeline (Molly Parker, “House of Cards”), is so taken by Madeline that she’s willing to redefine the company’s entire season around this beautiful, charismatic teenager. Though Evangeline’s magnanimous enthusiasm feels increasingly ominous, Parker walks such a fine line between empathy and egotism that we’re constantly reshifting our vision of her.
Regina, too, is an unsettlingly enigmatic character. She might be an ordinary, loving single mom doing her best under difficult circumstances. But this depends on whether Madeline is suffering from an externally-imposed identity crisis, or something much deeper. Are the shocking images that interrupt Madeline’s waking hours daydreams? Or memories? And what are we to make of the fact that Madeline is biracial, and both of the maternal figures guiding her self-definition are white?
Some of these questions are eventually answered, but more will be asked. Decker works in an improvisational mode aptly reflected here by Ashley Connor’s expressionistic camerawork and Caroline Shaw’s jarring score. Howard — only 19, and making her film debut — reflects this destabilized environment ideally as well, with a remarkably layered performance. Expect to hear her name come up again during awards season, particularly among film critic groups. 
July and Parker also impress in roles that are more restrained, but still tricky. Both women are presented, at various points, as Madonnas, martyrs, and maternal parasites: they give and they take, and they don’t seem able or willing to draw the line in either case.
Decker has so much on her mind that while her ambition is thrilling, her aim can feel scattershot. Among other things, she’s undertaken an in-depth exploration of adolescent confusion, filial enmeshment, cultural appropriation, racial and gender division, and mental illness. And despite her admirably uncompromising creativity, she undermines her intentions a bit by stacking the deck: Madeline is, ultimately, the only character with whom her full sympathies lie.
But the sincerity of her intentions, combined with three unusually haunting performances, casts a powerful spell. She and her fine actors approach their vast themes with an openhearted intensity likely to be appreciated most by those who rise and meet it.