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Review: Madeline’s Madeline

August 24, 2018

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

The latest from indie filmmaker Josephine Decker, Madeline’s Madeline is the sort of artsy, experimental film that will either work for you or it won’t. After its overhyped debut at Sundance back in January, the film is starting to make its way in front of regular audiences now.

Madeline (Helena Howard) is a teenaged actor who lives with her overbearing mother Regina (Miranda July) in New York, and is becoming increasingly involved with an experimental theatre troupe run by the free-spirited Evangeline (Molly Parker).

The theatre troupe dances around wearing creepy looking pig masks, and they do weird acting exercises where they gutturally scream, writhe around on stage, and pretend to be different animals. They are preparing for an experimental play, which is being spearheaded by Evangeline, that metaphorically explores the physical and mental prisons that we find ourselves in. But as aspects of Madeline’s own troubled life start to slip into her performance, the fine lines between art and reality get increasingly blurred.

Right from the opening scene in which Madeline pretends to be a cat as her mother goes along with it and scratches her belly, you will either be with the film or you won’t. This is the sort of quirky Sundance movie that is destined to invoke a wide range of audience reactions, with some people viewing it as an admirably risky work of art, and others finding it to be insufferably pretentious. While I can somewhat understand the former, I personally fell more into the latter camp.

The film explores themes of life intersecting with art and vice versa, and how the lived experiences of an actor can bleed over into their work. But it does so in such a vague, obtuse and purposefully inaccessible way, that I found it hard to make heads or tails of what the film is really trying to say. Madeline clearly has some sort of mental health issues, so this is a component to the film as well, heavily influencing the hazy, confusing nature of the plot.

What we are left with is a sort of bargain basement riff on Synecdoche, New York, but it ultimately lacks the profoundity and emotional resonance of that brilliant Charlie Kaufman film. I can understand why some people will admire Madeline’s Madeline for all the things it tries to do, and the film is competently shot, with Helena Howard literally throwing herself into the title role in a breakout performance. But at the same time, the film itself just didn’t quite work for me.

Madeline’s Madeline is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

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