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Madeline’s Madeline
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Madeline’s Madeline

In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order. “Experimental theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) says this to her troubled teenage star Madeline (Helena Howard) early on in Josephine Decker’s Madeline, and it’s a sentiment the movie both takes to heart and persistently questions. Decker’s film, the best thing I saw at Sundance this year, is built around tension and chaos: Its unruly scenes emerge out of disorder, out of chants and shrieks and fractured images, and always threaten to fade back into abstraction. The focus slips; the camera drifts. Whispers and wails intrude. A simple dialogue exchange might suddenly splinter into tight-angled close-ups of a face; a shot might disintegrate into a shimmering field of red. But one senses a method in this madness. The narrative might be shattered, but the film’s slipstream of emotion is powerful and inescapable.

As Madeline, the nineteen-year-old Howard — an explosively gifted performer — seizes your attention. She plays a precocious teen with what may or may not be mental issues (there are mentions of a psych ward stint, and glimpses of pill bottles and medical bracelets, but as with so much in this film, we’re never sure how much of what we’re seeing is real). Madeline’s talent is being both nurtured and exploited by Evangeline. Improvisational role-play exercises in rehearsal come too close for comfort to Madeline’s volatile relationship with her caring, fragile mother, Regina (Miranda July). The girl immerses herself in the part, then takes her work home: Acting exercises in one context become troubling behavior in another. Is she building a character, or is the character building her? At times Madeline pretends to be a cat, a pig, a sea turtle. She attacks her mother with an iron. (Was it a dream? A memory? A desire? A fear?) Mom observes her daughter with anticipation and fright; July cracks the most mysterious of smiles, perched between terror and bewilderment. A flash of pride can, in an instant, become a moment of deep humiliation.

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