Original, but perplexing, Josephine Decker’s film focuses on a 16 year-old New York performer

Dir. Josephine Decker. US, 90 min. 2018.

“You are not the cat; you are inside the cat.” If these opening lines of Madeline’s Madeline may sound cryptic, it soon becomes (relatively) clear: set in the world of a New York experimental theater company, the film follows Madeline, a 16-year-old performer whose impersonations of a feline are among one of her many exercises.

Visually and sonically experimental…a distinctive world

This latest bold effort from American indie director Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild And Lovely, Butter On The Latch), who has also worked as a performance artist, is both entrancing and wanting. While much of Madeline’s Madeline (also playing in Berlin’s Forum section) unfolds like an impressionistic psychological portrait of a young woman with mother issues (and first-time actress Helena Howard delivers a knockout performance), the story eventually throws dramatic coherence out the window, ultimately favouring the kind of experimental mode in which it is set.

The combination is intriguing, but it places the film firmly into a rarefied art-house box, where it should survive in microcinemas, museums and auteur-based VOD platforms.

Madeline’s Madeline takes its time to form a shape, initially combining dreamy, blurred images with the character’s Brooklyn-based reality. We are introduced to Madeline (Howard) and her brittle mother Regina (Miranda July), as well as scenes from her theater troupe and their movement-based exercises, led by encouraging director Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Decker cuts back-and-forth between the two, interweaving domestic tensions between daughter and mother with visions of Madeline acting like a sea turtle (and even wearing a sea turtle suit on the beach). Eventually, we learn that Madeline herself has suffered from some form of mental illness, and the film’s loose grip on reality mirrors her own. “You’re weird,” says a friend to Madeline. Evidently, yes.

Increasingly, Madeline clashes with her over-protective and passive-aggressive mother, who does little to alleviate her anxieties. When Regina catches Madeline watching porn with some boys in the basement, she freaks out and calls her a slut. To escape her mother, Madeline finds herself drawn to Evangeline as a safer maternal figure than her own. At the theatre, their bond appears mutual and mutually beneficial—teacher and student working together for the benefit of their art.

But then Evangeline, who is revealed to be pregnant and insecure about her process, looks to Madeline to bring authenticity to the project. She pushes Madeline to bring her personal maternal issues—and even her actual mother—into their theatrical venture. The decision clearly crosses an ethical line. The third act which ensues may make sense for Madeline’s coming-of-age arc, but when it comes to the other characters’ motivations and personalities, it’s a stretch.

However Decker isn’t interested in the other characters as much as she is in Madeline. While Molly Parker delivers a fine performance as a strong, creative woman belying a greater vulnerability, young discovery Helena Howard is a fierce and fiery on-screen presence, with a wide open-face and an alluring gap-toothed smile. When Howard’s Madeline reenacts a traumatic exchange between her character and her mother for her theatretroupe, it’s a show-stopping moment, full of sadness and rage, which bowls over her fellow actors—as well as the viewer.

The film is both visually and sonically experimental. The cinematography is dominated by soft and out-of-focus images and intimate close-ups of the actor’s faces, while the soundtrack is punctuated by modern operative voices, rhythmic breathing, and string-dominated orchestral music. It’s a distinctive world that Decker and her team have created. Among this year’s coming-of-age films, it’s got to be one of the most original. But it’s also one of the more perplexing.

Production companies: Bow and Arrow Entertainment, Forager Films

International Sales: Visit Films

Producers: Krista Parris, Elizabeth Rao

Executive producers: Michael Sherman, Matthew Perniciaro, Michael Decker, Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker, Joe Swanberg

Screenwriters: Josephine Decker, Donna Di Novelli

Cinematographer: Ashley Connor

Production designer: Charlotte Royer

Editors: Josephine Decker, Harrison Atkins

Main cast: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July, Okwui Okpokwasili, Felipe Bonilla, Lisa Tharps