Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 09, 2018 11:07 am 
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Through a lens, darkly

There are three women at the center of this expressionistic, proudly arthouse film, a sixteen-going-on-seventeen-year-old biracial girl called Madeline (new discovery Helena Howard), her white mother Regina (Miranda July), who also has a biracial son called Damon (Jaron Elijah Hopkins, barely glimpsed), and acting mentor Evangeline (Canadian actress Molly Parker). The film is shot and styled from the point of view of Madeline, who's mentally ill, and recently has been in what her mother unceremoniously calls "the psych ward" - a risky way to frame the tale, since it pulls the floor out from under us, and calls for considerable audience patience; viewers may be enthralled or repelled. Dp Ashley Connor's jiggly, blurry lens is in everyone's face. The effect is intimate, sensuous, sometimes beautiful, but needs larger-than-life performances for characters to be noticed amid the visual cacophony. As Tom Augustine of New Zealand Herald writes, "Questions of cultural and personal appropriation and mental health are explored with care, occasionally drowned out by the many cinematic flourishes the director drenches us in." This film is passionate, but the passion is sometimes blurred by the pretension - and blurry images. Still, the vivid performances, especially Howard's, and lush, intensive style, including score by Caroline Shaw, get raves from a majority of critics.

Madeline has a sort of brief date with a boy. At least he kisses her as she leaves. She lets in some boys from the Brooklyn street where she lives and puts on a porno tape, whereupon her mother enters, acting very strangely, demanding they sit down and watch it together, yet plainly very disapproving. At other moments she shows herself to be very paranoid.

Both adult women are intrusive. Regina is passive-aggressive, sometimes cruel. But is Madeline beating her and attacking her with an iron - or just daydreaming it? Evangeline goes even farther. She is the leader of a small New York physical theatrical group (as if things weren't theatrical enough) whose workshops involve movement and large animal masks. One may wonder why Madeline spends much of every day here. Shouldn't she be in school - perhaps in special classes? It's apparently summer, and she is awaiting (perhaps belatedly?) results from applications to colleges, including Julliard.

Evangeline loves having Madeline in the group - she's the youngest member - but her love becomes consuming when she asks Madeline's permission to use her life and emotions as the center of a production, and then makes her the main actor in a drama about mental illness. The show is the drama is the show. Or would be. We don't know, everything is just sketches, improvisations, suggestions. At a party at Evangeline's house, Madeline learns she has a black husband; she makes a sort of pass at him, and learns the controlling Evangeline is "insecure." Evangeline and Madeline mutually decide she ought to withdraw from the "project." Yet Evangeline inappropriately invites Regina to join the workshop. Madeline quickly drives her out be doing a smashing imitation of her mother as an exercise.

This leads Evangeline to change her mind again: they will have Madeline play herself in a piece about her life. Finally, Madeline leads the whole group in - what? A revolt against Evangeline? Or a homage to her charismatic (if tense) leadership. We don't know, though a revolt seems in order. Or was this whole thing stuff Madeline imagines in the psych ward? Anyway, though along the way much has felt wrong or simply thrown together in a careless way, at the end it all feels okay. Maybe we're just glad it's over, and tired of being told how talented Madeline is. It begins to feel like an extended episode of Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair's inventive and always-changing Brooklyn-based TV series "High Maintenance," if only for the cast and the setting - and because I've been watching that series so much.

Madeline's Madeline, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, also playing in the the Forum section at Berlin, and in a dozen other mostly US festivals. It opens in US theaters 10 Aug. 2018, 24 Aug. elsewhere (Roxie, San Francisco). Distributed by Oscilloscope. Metascore 85%.

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