FilmSpace: Madeline's Madeline

Film critic Scott Wilson reviews a new hidden gem, featuring a star-making debut performance, that’s worth the effort to find 

Madeline’s Madeline – ★★★★★

Progressivism has brought the ethics of the artistic process to the conversation like never before. Now, as a rule, we expect safe environments for workers, checks and balances, responsible bosses. Terms and conditions keep people in line, but, more than ever before, the social justice movement acts as a moral guide when faced with a moral conundrum.

In Madeline’s Madeline, it’s the question of mental health and using the horrors that come with it for creative fuel. We follow Madeline (Helena Howard in her debut role, not that you’d know) as she attends theatre classes led by Molly Parker’s Evangeline. What’s going on with Madeline is never spelled out, but between dreaming of attacking her mum (Miranda July) with an iron and hitting on her teacher’s spouse, something is up.

It’s Josephine Decker’s direction that takes us into her mania. Cinema is bound only by imagination, and Decker knows every tool is at her disposal to convey Madeline’s disorientated view of the world. The camera glides, often out of focus, sometimes heading in the wrong direction entirely, as if Madeline never has a grip on what’s happening. Whispers come at her from all directions, sometimes judgemental, sometimes inappropriate, giving an impression of her vulnerability, a sixteen year old girl faced with constant criticisms, confronted with parts of life she shouldn’t have to deal with yet.

Films about the creative process have a broader appeal than one would initially expect, especially now, as we wonder what counts as performance in an age of social media, where tweets can be seen as mini-blogs, press releases, or part of a persona.

In Evangeline, Madeline finds comfort, but the film asks whether it’s misplaced. There’s no doubt she is encouraged by Evangeline’s mentorship, committing to roles as animals and given ample opportunity to explore her own interpretation of characters she plays. But Madeline’s experience of the world thus far leads to impassioned performances which cross the line into disturbing, achieving something artistically mesmerising while raising questions of responsibility, of whether she should be pushed to go to those places.

It’s in those moments the film contemplates the line between encouragement and exploitation. Write what you know, the saying goes, and the same could be said for acting – why shouldn’t Madeline express her inner turmoil and the fraught dynamic with her mother when she knows them better than anyone else? Except watching that process take place is a difficult experience, akin to reliving a trauma, and is deeply uncomfortable.

Creative outlets are often a saving grace for people with mental health issues. It’s a channel to make sense of negative emotions and take control of them. Madeline’s Madeline is a look at what happens when directed to that channel irresponsibly, when a figure with power points someone down the wrong path, even if they have the best of intentions to collaborate and create authentic art.

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None of that delicate balance between mentorship and torture would be this deftly told without Helena Howard’s magnificent debut performance. Switching between manic and non-responsive, her face conveys everything Madeline is thinking – or not thinking. One climactic acting recital is emotional not just in its content but in its power, filling the space it takes place in, affecting all of the fellow actors surrounding her. Howard makes you want to protect and nurture Madeline, while also being struck by her talents which seem to be blooming.

Films about the creative process are nothing new, but whether they find an audience outwith arthouse cinemas is often down to word of mouth. They have a broader appeal than one would initially expect, especially now, as we wonder what counts as performance in an age of social media, where tweets can be seen as mini-blogs, press releases, or part of a persona. Just as Madeline is encouraged to go down a certain path by an irresponsible leader, so too can those susceptible to charismatic figures online, with powerful Twitter brands and influencers on Instagram relying on holding sway over their followers. When everything we put online is an act, the origin of that act could be dictated by a manipulator like Evangeline.

So while Madeline’s Madeline is about the creative process, it’s also about the vulnerability of people generally when they place their trust in someone with control. Here, a tutor oversteps their mark despite believing they’re doing the right thing, making for an uneasy watch. It raises ethical questions about the pursuit not only of artistic greatness, but finding yourself too, and becoming comfortable in your own skin, and who the right people are to guide you there. Decker tells a familiar story in a new, modern way, conducting each part of the filmmaking process with virtuosity, making for one of 2019’s best films so far.

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