A tactless/ruthless acting coach/stage director and a wounded, bipolar mother battle for an unstable young actress’s affections and soul in “Madeline’s Madeline,” an extremely disquieting drama about art, ego, fragility and cruelty.
Whatever the mother’s concerns, to the director, this struggle is worth it. Madeline is a young actress who REALLY gets into character.
Working with an improvisational “immersive” theater troupe, nobody takes “be a cat” more seriously, no one goes as deep and far with “performance as the the beautiful but brittle 16 year old.
Because Madeline, played by newcomer Helena Howard, isn’t quite right. She’s fine on stage, wearing masks, making her moments up in the moment, even wandering the streets of the city, grunting in character. But when Mom (indie icon Miranda July) picks her up, the beaming smile fades — gradually or quickly. You never know what will set her off.
And as she suggests to Mom that she’d have liked to stayed after rehearsals to talk with the other mother figure in her life, Evangeline (Molly Parker of “Deadwood”), Mom shows how quickly SHE can be set off.
A hovering, worrying, fretful and indulgent parent turns on a dime — or rather stops her Volvo wagon on one. “Get out. GET OUT.”
Director and co-writer Josephine Decker’s film is a hazy and heady depiction of the breathless enthusiasm of actors wholly-engaged — their brains and every usable sense — and a blurred, confused look at that process through the eyes of a novice who only feels “normal” with that freedom and license, that adrenaline, on or off her meds.
Evangeline is struggling, with a large ensemble of actor/mime/dancers, to invent a show out of “process.” She brings in an ex-con who explains the mentality that gets you through confinement, and orders, “Improvise ‘no way out.'”
There are pig masks and minimalist costumes, ideas worked towards something well short of resolution. Her cast is devoted and celebrate Evangline’s pregnancy announcement. She praises Madeline to the heavens, and we both agree with that praise and wonder how much of it is an acknowledgement of whatever happened in the girl’s past.
Then Mom, interrupting her curious, cute teen’s offstage adventures with boys who discover her father’s porn collection, shrieks “You want her in a PSYCHE ward for another SIX WEEKS?”
Evangeline? She’s foundering and desperate. Until that first time she gets Madeline to play-act one of her arguments with her mom, playing her mother. As the rest of the cast exchanges increasingly alarmed looks, Evangeline puts Madeline on a gurney. She says “psyche ward” and orders Madeline to essentially play Madeline, we fear for the girl, the cast, Evangeline, her unborn baby and the future of “immersive theater.”
Because that’s messed up, and probably legally actionable.
In the 1980 cult hit “The Stunt Man,” a director (Peter O’Toole) takes sadistically cruel advantage of a young man (Steve Railsback) on the lam who turns up on his set and is hired as a stunt man. The director seems hellbent on killing the guy.
Parker’s Evangeline isn’t that sadistic, but she has all the power in this dynamic, showing concern about the obviously dysfunctional apple-tree, mother/daughter relationship she’s witnessed — “Do you feel SAFE around your mother?”
We feel sorry for Madeline, sorrier for her hapless mother and take to the edge of our seats, wondering how this dangerous “game” will play out. This rebellious and sometimes violent kid throws ashtrays and pulls her mother’s hair out. How’s she going to understand what’s being done, and how will she react?
What will her improvisations reveal? How will “Madeline’s Madeline” act out this directorial manipulation, and how far will she go in hurting her mother or others?
Howard’s magnetic performance, delivered in a blizzard of mood-swing close-ups, hints at any number of possibilities.
And whatever the balance of power appears to be in Decker’s demanding, quixotic film, never underestimate the dynamism and control a charismatic performer, left to her own devices on the stage, to even those odds.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, adult situations, profanity, teen drinking and smoking.
Cast:Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker, Okwui Okpokwasili
Running time: 1:33