Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is an often astonishing film, with raw nerve performances and sequences that feel vulnerable, all led by an amazing debut from Helena Howard.
The through line of Decker’s film is following this acting troupe that Howard’s Madeline is a part of, herself a blossoming prodigy (in real life and the film), and as the two maternal figures in her life (Madeline’s mother and teacher) battle for her attention. We see Madeline workshopping and going through exercises with her troupe as their leader, Evangeline, tries to create some radical new play, but when she goes home she battles with an overbearing mother who is trying to protect Madeline from some undescribed (and prescribed?) “episode” from happening again. As Evangeline senses the tension in Madeline’s life, and how it brings out her best performance, Evangeline begins adapting Madeline’s life into the play and she struggles to create something on her own.
This film is hard to describe, and while that above synopsis might give you an idea of where they film goes, it doesn’t really describe what the film is and that it is, kind of, revolutionary? This isn’t the first film to deal with the craft of acting, but if feels unlike just about anything I’ve ever seen, period. Decker does an incredible job of putting us into Madeline’s headspace and the foggy, stressed and intensity that comes with it. Decker uses everything at her disposal to give us a visual and aural experience that unnerves and intrigues, even when you might not quite be sure what the fuck is going on. Decker’s craft is complimented at every turn by Howard’s performance, which is a revelatory debut.
Helena Howard probably has given us the best performance of the year in Madeline’s Madeline. She feels authentically full of teen angst at home, suffering and affected by whatever illness is inside her, all while convincingly selling us on Madeline’s incredible ability as an actress in the context of the film. All of this culminates in one the better performances of the last few years and one can only hope she is scooped up by every great filmmaker out there to continue to give us some more of this incredible work.
Howard stands out in the acting scenes because she is so far beyond her peers in the troupe, but the fact that you aren’t quite sure if everyone else in the troupe is just great at acting bad here or if they are actually just getting blown off the screen by Howard’s incredible work definitely helps the film stay compelling. The look into the world of these actors training is borderline embarrassing for them, pathetic seeming even, but I also have to applaud all of them for putting themselves out there like they did.
The other two leads of the film are Miranda July as Madeline’s mother, Regina, and Molly Parker as Evangeline. Both of them are excellent alongside Howard, delivering maternal figures for Madeline to be frustrated and let down by. July has never been better and she feels like she is barely keeping things together as Regina. Her instability helps fuel the idea that something might not be quite right with Madeline, but July’s performance makes us feel sad for Regina and, at the same time, completely understand Madeline’s frustrations with her. July doesn’t act enough, especially if she can deliver more work on this level. Parker is equally as fragile as Evangeline, but that is slowly revealed over time. She slowly breaks under pressure of being bankrupt of any good ideas, and Parker sells us every step of the way. The facade of confidence crumbles towards sadness, before becoming an active antagonist by the end. I’ve always enjoyed Parker when she shows up, and, like July, she has never been better than she is here.
Madeline’s Madeline is a trip of a movie. It features three of the best performances you will see this year, one of which might be the best debut of the decade. Decker’s film as a whole will mesmerize and I can’t wait to dive into it again. It’s an experience that feels like it can go anywhere and Howard makes that journey one you will want to take again.