Going Mad for “Madeline’s Madeline”

Madeline is a teen who struggles with an unnamed mental illness but shines as a member of a physical theater company, a creatively generative environment where she finds solace from the brittle and often volatile relationship she has with her mother. When Evangeline, the director of the company, takes Madeline under her wing, the lines between life and art become blurred — or have they always been that way? What is real, what is a dream, and who is in control of the story?

Madeline’s Madeline, which stars Miranda July, Molly Parker, and Helena Howard, is impressionistic, slippery, self-conscious, experimental, and very meta. Ever since it made its debut at Sundance this past year, it’s gotten a lot of buzzes. But is it resonant? Is it even accessible? Read on, as Fandor staffers Hannah Piper Burns and Matt Maraynes parse the visceral and visionary fever dream that is the uncompromisingly artistic auteur Josephine Decker’s latest offering.

Hannah Piper Burns: There have been a lot of acclaimed coming-of-age films this year, and I think Madeline’s Madeline adds something really important to this new canon, of which recent releases Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, and Eighth Grade would also be considered apart.

One of the things I love the most about this movie, actually, is that I am not decided on how I feel about a lot of the choices that Decker made. It’s rare to be so aware of the choices — the world of a film is supposed to engulf you such that many of these choices are rendered invisible by the overall logic of the world it inhabits.

Matt Maraynes: I think that’s an apt jumping-off point for a conversation about Madeline’s Madeline, which is in many ways defined by its portrayal of a person’s subjective experience (that of Madeline and her various emotional conflicts). It’s interesting to hear you group it in with those other recent coming-of-age films. If someone were to craft a standard Hollywood logline for the movie it would, ostensibly, sound like a typical coming of age story. There are, indeed, scenes and punctuations in the story’s arc and basic skeleton that resemble typical coming-of-age story points, but I think Decker takes the film in stylistic and thematic directions that set it apart from those other movies. What are some of those choices and directions about which you felt particularly undecided?

HPB: Oh for sure, the movie deviates in many ways from its narrative spine, which is about a teen’s subjective experience of growing up, and trying to find their place in their world and in their own narrative, even. Like Lady Bird, it’s also a study of a mother and daughter with dynamics that often shift like the weather. Similar to Eighth Grade, it’s sometimes so unflinching in its exploration of adolescent awkwardness or shame that it’s painful to watch.

But yes, then it spirals out into these very expressionistic moments with that intimate, handheld camerawork, the purposeful softness, the breathy soundtrack. What am I trying to say? It’s like the technique is almost shorthand for “experimental,” and it’s almost a parody of itself. Sometimes, it works astoundingly well, and sometimes it feels almost self-conscious of its own heavy-handedness. And yet, that self-consciousness wraps back into the narrative in a really smart way. It’s exhilarating to feel that vulnerability in an ostensibly mainstream movie.

MM: When the credits rolled, a part of me was actually surprised that the film is getting this much mainstream exposure. Sure, we might not see it at multiplexes, but it still made waves at Sundance, and reviews from most reputable outlets consider it to be a remarkable film, or, at the very least, find it to be a singularly thought-provoking experience.

This makes me wonder about the extent to which it’s a film that’s unsure of its own identity, straddling the many lines between convention and experimental impressionism. In an interview with director Mike Mills, Decker discusses the film’s long editing process, during which she received editorial input from a variety of different filmmakers (including Mills). Perhaps as a result of that, along with Decker’s own creative approach, the film became a uniquely mixed beast.

I don’t think this is necessarily a good or bad thing. The film hits some notes and misses others; a dreamlike sequence that ends with Madeline’s first kiss encapsulated the rush of teenage excitement, but some of the scenes at the acting studio are — to use your words — a little heavy-handed. Taken overall, I wasn’t sure how much I was moved by an emotional journey, and how much I was a spectator watching a work of experimental art. I think there’s an element of frustration there, in being unsure of what Decker was trying to accomplish, and how. And then I get frustrated for being frustrated because perhaps some of the points lie in absorbing the film as a visceral experience, rather than a tidy, resolution-oriented narrative.

HPB: Oh, see I think the film is aware of its identity, but that its identity is ambivalent. Ambivalence and uncertainty are related, but they’re different. I think a lot of the criticism of this movie will miss that distinction, and with good reason: Literally, everything about the moment we live in discourages us from ambivalence, from truly holding space for multiple truths and multiple subjectivities.

In that same interview with Mills, Decker talks about the movie being edited like a web, which to me, feels very different from the way we as movie watchers/makers/lovers are taught to make meaning and also really points back to the film’s ambivalence. It’s not interesting in a three-act structure, or beats. It’s interested in building this set, this continuum of relational dynamics. Like, how do you edit a paradox? And yes, balance emotional resonance with artistic risk? We are dropped into Madeline’s narrative in the middle, and it’s left to us to make meaning from many of the sequences.

Speaking of which, as someone who has experience in improvisational and physical theater, I found those sequences hilarious but also very self-aware. The movie, and Madeline herself, both feel most transcendent when the troupe is truly channeling their inner children when they return to that state of wonder and uninhibitedness. Anyone who wants to critique those scenes better be ready to do that for Rivette, as well. And honestly, anyone who champions micro-dosing or other controlled ways of using perspective shift, a return to innocence, and ego death to unlock genius should recognize the same keys here.

MM: As troubling as it is that our moment has such a hard time tolerating ambivalence and embracing subjectivity, it’s heartening to see this film making the waves that it is, and sparking the conversation that it has. It’s also important to acknowledge — as you note in your allusion to altered states of consciousness — that there is something there that’s dormant in society, and that’s also fundamental to the human species, that is receptive to ambivalence and subjectivity.

When I browsed the critical responses to the film, I was pleasantly surprised at how receptive the writers were in general, and how gently they considered a film that many might (and probably will) find abrasive in its lack of concern for the convention. In that sense, the movie is a ninety-minute lesson in the ability to experience wonder, unafraid.

Beyond the critical response is another bright spot: The film that Decker is currently shooting, Shirley, stars Elizabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Logan Lerman, which constitutes the highest volume of “name” actors yet to appear in one of her movies. That’s not at all to say that a film can’t be good without name actors, nor that a film is guaranteed success with them. The fact that financiers are backing her with more money could also just mean that they see dollar signs in Sundance’s success, and not that audiences are experiencing a major cognitive shift. But the production is nonetheless an illustration that Decker’s platform is expanding, which makes this an important moment in her career. To what extent will her artistic integrity and ability to confront audiences with ambivalence be challenged under this brighter spotlight?

HPB: It’s funny: To me, Miranda July is a more familiar name than Michael Stuhlbarg or Logan Lerman! July, like Decker, has roots in performance art and experimental film, and in many ways, Madeline’s Madeline feels like a love letter to that scene and its potential, but also a bit of a cautionary tale about the limits of art’s power to heal. Through the absolutely revelatory performance of newcomer Helena Howard, we see how Madeline constantly perceives and transmits the moments in which the transcendence she craves is sublimated or transfigured into something that threatens instead of soothes her mercurial interior storms.

The idea of expansion — of budgets, of platforms, of name recognition — is so ingrained in the moviemaking process and culture and how we expect a career to unfold. A lot of reviewers have expressed an expectation that Decker, in her subsequent projects, moves beyond this kind of meta-critique on herself and her own creative process, as her budget expands and she works with more familiar and bankable faces. But isn’t her willingness to implicate herself as an auteur part of this movie’s power? It’s not because Decker doesn’t have anything “better” or more expansive to discuss, it’s because it’s a vitally important subject, especially when we’ve been giving a lot of lip service to the idea of an emergent “intersectional cinema.”

MM: In spite of reviewers’ expectations, I don’t think expansion and maintaining the authenticity of her voice are mutually exclusive. It will certainly be a challenge for Decker to continue that meta-critical style and self-interrogating impulse with more money on the table (and perhaps more uninvited cooks in the creative kitchen), but it’s not impossible. I get the impression that she’s not the type to easily compromise, unless, of course, she really connects with the input given to her. At the very least, I don’t think we’re likely to see Decker use Madeline’s Madeline as a springboard into a five-movie deal directing blockbusters for a studio. That alone says something to me. That the film has made its niche in the growing canon of intersectional cinema as something that’s accessible and relatable, but also thoroughly challenging and thought-provoking, places her in a unique stratosphere of cinematic voices.

HPB: Very true. I think she may, like Kelly Reichardt, have a long and robust career ahead of her that fearlessly explores multiple genres in her own, unique language. One can only hope.

Watch Now: Many of Decker’s earlier works, including Me the Terrible, Bi the Way, Butter on the Latch, and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, are now streaming on Fandor! While you’re at it, catch Madeline’s Madeline star Miranda July lending her voice-over talents to the offbeat documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal.

We would be so, so remiss if we failed to direct you to our scintillating post-Sundance interview with “Madeline’s Madeline” director Josephine Decker! We also have a fascinating article about one of her earlier, but no less risky films: “Flames.” And if you like the idea of criticism-as-dialogue, then you definitely won’t want to miss our point-counterpoint reviews of “Mission Impossible: Fallout,” “Skyscraper,” “Godard, Mon Amour,” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story!”
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