‘Madeline’s Madeline’ opens with a teenaged girl pretending to be a cat, nuzzling up to a woman in a kitchen; their relationship is initially unclear. It’s intriguing, intimate, unsettling: three moods that persist throughout American director Josephine Decker’s fascinating film.
Madeline (Helena Howard) is a young biracial actress who’s playing the lead in a piece of experimental theatre. Her mother (Miranda July) is encouraging but slightly bewildered. She’s also nervous about Madeline’s mental health, something theatre director Evangeline (Molly Parker) seems happy to exploit for her own ends. Earnest hippy actors and porn-obsessed boys-next-door inhabit the fringes of their lives, contributing to enjoyable darkly comic episodes. But the centrepiece of the film is the relationship between Madeline and the two older women in her life.
It’s surely no accident that performance artist Miranda July is cast as the mother: the movie bears similarities to her own work as a filmmaker, such as ‘The Future’ and ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’. Meanwhile, the riveting Parker helps imbue Evangeline with characteristics that would be contradictory in a more conventional film (she’s pregnant, manipulative, affectionate, controlling and vulnerable).
The real eye-opener is the performance from Howard, as she flits between manic happiness and feral fury. Not one of these women is the sort you would readily call ‘likeable’, which makes them all the more interesting, as does the camerawork from cinematographer Ashley Connor (‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’), which offers a dizzying route into Madeline’s agitated headspace. Like the improvised theatre it depicts, ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for challenging, character-focused fare, you should definitely give it a whirl.