Madeline’s Madeline review: Debutante Helena Howard delivers Oscar-worthy performance in this indie gem

Prahlad Srihari

October 31, 2018 16:41:55 IST

4/5

In the opening shot of Josephine Decker's latest film Madeline's Madeline, a nurse smiles at the camera and reveals in a strangely reassuring voice, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor. The emotions you are having are not your own.” The scene has a fuzzy fever-dream aesthetic to it and when you hear the purrs of a cat, you think this is an out-of-body experience. But you're left wondering if the film is being told from the perspective of a human or cat. The nurse thankfully clues us in again: “You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.”

Helena Howard plays the titular Madeline, a troubled teenage girl who finds sanctuary in an after-school improv theatre troupe

Helena Howard plays the titular Madeline, a troubled teenage girl who finds sanctuary in an after-school improv theatre troupe

The following shot reveals the film's 16-year-old protagonist Madeline (Helena Howard) is role playing as a house cat for an improv exercise. She is the youngest but also the most gifted member of an experimental theatre troupe in New York. But she suffers from an unspecified mental illness, for which she had to spend six weeks in a psych ward. Between an overprotective single mother Regina (Miranda July) at home and possible bullies at school, the only place where Madeline finds solace is with her fellow theatre actors and their ambitious director, Evangeline (Molly Parker).

Due to her volatile relationship with her mother, Madeline finds Evangeline to be a more comforting maternal figure and shares her deepest and darkest thoughts with her in confidence. However, Evangeline exploits Madeline's emotional vulnerability in the guise of friendship and incorporates dysfunctional elements of her life into her upcoming performance art piece.

Caught in a tug-of-war between two maternal figures and having lost authorship to her own story, Madeline falls into a downward spiral that ends in a stunning climax.

With the story of an opportunistic and manipulative white woman (Evangeline) co-opting the turmoil of a bi-racial teenager (Madeline) for her own benefit, Decker looks to examine the not-so-black-and-white racial dynamics and the ethics of appropriation in art.

Helena Howard and Molly Parker in a still from Madeline’s Madeline

Helena Howard and Molly Parker in a still from Madeline’s Madeline

On the surface, Madeline's Madeline is an uncompromising portrait of a troubled teenage girl who finds sanctuary in an after-school improv theatre troupe. But, look deeper, it provides self-aware commentary about the acting process itself.

It is a magical experience watching an actor take over a character's psychological reality, inhabit their world and become them. As the boundaries between fantasy and reality become blurred, it becomes virtually impossible to differentiate the performance from the performer. However, while acting can offer an outlet to turn one's pain into performance, it is important not to confuse theatre with therapy.

Actors usually have control over their characters and know how to switch between the two distinct cognitive states. But Madeline has the ability to lose herself into the consciousness of the character she plays — be it the family cat, a sea turtle, a deranged homeless man or even her mother. And Howard plays them all, including Madeline herself, with aplomb and outshines even Parker and July. In her debut feature film, Howard delivers an Oscar-worthy performance of an almost indescribable intensity.

Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker (L) and its breakout star Helena Howard. Image via IMDb

Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker (L) and its breakout star Helena Howard. Image via IMDb

Decker takes an expressionistic approach to her third feature film, combining its restless cinematography with generous helpings of surrealist imagery. DP Ashley Connor employs mostly handheld camerawork — that has a dizzying, claustrophobic effect on the viewer — to take us into the headspace of a deeply disturbed girl prone to not just your usual adolescent angst but also violent mood swings. So, the film features plenty of soft and slightly out-of-focus medium to close-up shots of the actors' faces, coupled with a jarring sound design featuring overlapping dialogue, rhythmic breathing exercises and Caroline Shaw's string and choral arrangements — to highlight her emotionally fragile state.

Madeline's Madeline is one of the most imaginative, perceptive indie films in recent years and one that deserves to be treasured for years to come. But it will be remembered particularly for Helena Howard’s breakthrough performance — a performance that could win her a much-deserved Oscar and turn her into a bona fide star.

Updated Date: Nov 08, 2018 21:36 PM