Madeline's Madeline may be the most thoughtful film ever made about acting. Despite heavy effort, I haven't seen every movie, TV show, or school play there ever was so I can't say for certain. Otherwise I would. Forget acting, co-writer/director Josephine Decker's movie is the most thoughtful film about anything I've seen in a long time. Starring an unknown named Helena Howard, who plays a teenager playing an actress playing herself in a production of the most damaging incident of her life, the film is a metacore (Is that a genre yet? Can someone ask Charlie Kaufman?) presentation of one's self, of madness, of performance, of life. It presents no answers, but you may discover some about yourself.
Acting is one of those art forms that gets really, you know, strange. Hollywood gives the misconception actors are gods, but the truth is they're pitiful artists. They crave higher purpose through performance. They materialize as pure emotion. The point is actors are different animals, and Madeline's Madeline brings us into an acting troupe shepherded by the inspiring Evangeline (Molly Parker), who smiles a lot for someone with a god complex. Her players transform into hogs and perform a primal dance onstage. From the crowd, young Madeline (Howard) delights in the anarchy. When it's her turn, she thrills everyone.
Madeline's Madeline begins in a Lynchian manner. A nurse who we later meet as one of the acting troupe speaks to the camera, telling us, "What you are experiencing is just a metaphor." Is this a dream? Is she speaking to us, or Madeline? The question of where reality begins and ends in the film is up for debate right until the final shot of the title character in the street by herself. David Lynch often uses dreams as metaphors or riddles in his films. The point of view perspective is an immediate way to make us a part of the experience. Decker is challenging us.
We're told in a throwaway manner that Madeline is newly returned from a psychiatric stay. There was an incident and Mom aka Regina (Miranda July — who I suspect was an influence on the script) is a major button pusher. Madeline is noticeably on edge around her and Evangeline sees this. She recognizes its power, and she wants to harness it.
When Madeline's worlds collide the film achieves something profound. Like Kaufman's work (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Synecdoche, NY), Decker coerces truth by looking inward. It's a thousand times bigger in scope than the most galactic Star Wars movie. Madeline, 16-years-old and still shapeless, is encouraged by someone she worships to give herself to the art form. How it influences the young girl's mind and her madness is where the film finds its intensity.
What Howard does in this movie is courageous. Acting can appear pretentious and most people won't get this film. Madeline's Madeline is an experimental movie that asks for our patience and understanding. It oozes disorientation as a projection of its lead. Howard, however, is undeniable. She's in every scene, shot in woozy handheld close-ups by lenser Ashley Connor. Her black eyes change from innocent to predator in a blink and it's hard to tell when she's not performing.
Madeline is at once an insecure teen, a housecat, a lovelorn puppy, a rage monster, a turtle laying eggs on the beach, and a performance artist. Which is the real her? Which isn't? Howard thrills with every face, morphing from minute to minute. She should be captured and put on display at the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa.
What you find in Madeline's Madeline depends on your capacity for abstract thought. Should Madeline play Madeline? Is she right for the role? Were you perfectly suited for the role of you? Movies that ambitiously ask eternal questions deserve our attention. This is one of them.