This is just a metaphor.
One of the worst things you can be told as a child is how brilliant you are. Parents and mentors love to throw this sort of blanket praise out with promises that everything will work out for you without thinking about the ramifications of what such a falsely optimistic indoctrination devoid of realism can wield. How do you cope when failure occurs? How do you handle a response from those you trust similar to: “They’re going to regret their mistake because you are perfect?” Oftentimes this is the adult projecting some vicarious desire to see you succeed where they could not. Think about soccer moms and hockey dads. Think about Honey Boo Boo and beauty pageants. The psychological damage is real, long-lasting, and usually dismissed as loving pride.
Writer/director Josephine Decker places us in the headspace of a young woman experiencing the fallout of such a situation with her latest film Madeline’s Madeline. Making good on the intensity of her previous two features, this go-round sees her literally turn the camera into a teenager’s mind so we can feel the trauma in real-time. We become Madeline (Helena Howard) as she endures the pain of an erratic home life under the thumb of a mother (Miranda July‘s Regina) who’s kind, playful, and compassionate one second before shifting into a cruelty that brings her daughter to tears. We become her as she seeks escape via an improvisational theater troupe run by Evangeline (Molly Parker), the respite of transformation freeing her from the chains of a forced upon identity.
But just as Regina sees her as a doll to mold rather than protect, so too does Evangeline. While we infer Madeline’s mother pushed her towards greatness without asking if she desired it before dismissing the inevitable rebellion as mental instability instead of a cry for help, we get a front row seat to watch the girl’s acting teacher latch onto her hellscape of nightmarish visions and impulses for inspiration. The darkness that lends Madeline the vulnerability to excel onstage becomes a flame Evangeline’s moth cannot ignore. The woman presents herself as a confidant who then mines her student’s psyche to exploit it for artistic gain. Suddenly Madeline’s safe place becomes a battlefield, her worst memories reenacted again and again until performance and existence blur together as one.
Wherever Madeline runs becomes an environment with which she has no control. Any act in view of Regina or Evangeline becomes either genius or malice in their eyes depending on whether it’s a spur of the moment bit of spontaneity or table-turning maneuver that places them on the hot seat they too often push her towards. Here’s a girl pouring out her soul—a mixed race New Yorker who’s admitted to being bullied at school and who endures emotional warfare at home—only to have it repackaged as art. And it’s white women (Regina and Evangeline both) who take it upon themselves to believe they could ever know what she’s going through. It’s women in positions of privilege too self-absorbed and insecure to see the horrors they wrought.
So Madeline must break free from their gaze and deliver exactly what they want exactly how they don’t want it. If Regina oversteps her boundaries to steal her daughter’s oasis, Madeline will air her dirty laundry with a fury that cuts her mother deep within her soul. If Evangeline wants to push her pupil towards a scenario too real and of obvious discomfort, Madeline will improvise by jumping into her teacher’s mind to lay bare her fears instead. The film becomes a revolving door of performative violence wherein the adults never acknowledge the fact this teenager is shoving a mirror into their faces. Madeline is fighting for autonomy. She’s desperate for air and struggling to survive within a world more willing to commodify her pain than alleviate it.
How does she express her sexuality when her mother preaches repression behind closed doors and laughs about it in public? How can she trust her gifts as an actor when her director asks her for a scarring imitation of the isolation she’s come here to erase? This notion of metaphor is presented with Madeline and the other troupe performers embodying the motions of animals in order to lose themselves and here we come to find she is the animal these two women strive to lose themselves inside. They crave her talent so much that they will risk destroying it for a single glimpse at its power. They want her success to be their doing and intentionally sabotage their relationship with her to make certain that role is known.
Madeline’s Madeline can be a tough watch at times because of this since the anger Howard (stunningly raw and mesmerizingly authentic in her first film role) displays cuts through our hearts. We see her character’s “performances” as the actual display of trauma they are—similar to what her acting partners see. She gets crushed beneath the futility of only being heard when she’s inappropriate enough to shake her victim awake from his/her delusions of preconceived assumptions. To watch as Max (Sunita Mani), KK (Okwui Okpokwasili), and others look upon her devastation with concern only to hear Evangeline’s misplaced applause is to witness pure opportunistic hallucination. This girl is being stripped of her identity without any recourse besides matching volatility with volatility. It’s absolutely heartbreaking in its familiarity.
And both July and Parker deliver performances of utter terror through disarming smiles. We can see why they would be trusted and how difficult comprehending their underhanded ability to dismantle another’s resolve for their own benefit would prove. The hazy blur of vision isn’t merely a result of pig and cat masks, but also a byproduct of the translucent film holding the real Madeline trapped inside an illusion sold by handlers as a masterpiece they crafted. Howard effortlessly shifts from depressed rage to easy comfort with nothing more than the removal of the current source of monstrous torment. Only with a rousing finale of sensory overload can Madeline reclaim her voice. Only with support from artists like her can she embrace the Madeline she wishes to be.
courtesy of Oscilloscope