You know a film is bat-shit cray cray when indie icon Miranda July plays the normal, grounded voice of reason. In her fourth feature, US experimental filmmaker Josephine Decker plays fast and loose with the rules and grammar of cinematic storytelling to create a mesmerising work that is at once intoxicating and head-scratching. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you give yourself over to it, Madeline’s Madeline rewards you cinematically, intellectually and emotionally.
In plot terms, Madeline’s Madeline is straightforward enough. Simply put, it’s a battle between flighty single mother Regina (July) and extreme theatre director Evangeline (Parker) for the heart and mind of Regina’s daughter Madeline (Howard), a precociously talented teen suffering from an unnamed mental health issue. It is set in the world of avant-garde performance theatre which it delivers without a hint of parody, filled to the brim with the kind of acting exercises that make your teeth itch — at one point Madeline is told, “Don’t be a cat; be in the cat” — as Evangeline leads the students into darker and darker places. When the group turn on the shrill teacher in a routine involving pig-faced masks, no-one is the slightest bit surprised.
Yet the set-up is complicated and intensified by Decker’s approach, stream-of-conscious filmmaking that mixes up free-form editing, Lynch-esque sound strategies and dizzying camerawork that has a tenuous grip on sharp focus. The result is a captivating, meta meditation on the process of creating art, grounded by three great performances: July perfectly embodies a weak mother figure, Parker is riveting as the dictatorial teacher who runs a theatre group like a cult, and Howard is electric in a dynamic debut full of controlled intensity (watch her seduce Evangeline’s husband) — catch her raw talent now before she gets gobbled up by the MCU.