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'Madeline's Madeline' Toys With Viewer's Perception Every Step Of The Way


Most summer movies tell a pretty straightforward story. "Madeline's Madeline" is a little different. Where it's going isn't complicated, but critic Bob Mondello says it toys with the viewer's perceptions every step of the way.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As the film begins, you hear purring, then a nurse's voice.


OKWUI OKPOKWASILI: (As Nurse, KK) The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else's. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.

MONDELLO: There is briefly a cat on screen, but mostly there's Madeline, 16 years old, pretty, hair a big afro mane, stretching and purring in her mom's apartment. Her mother's at first concerned...


MIRANDA JULY: (As Regina) Are you OK?

MONDELLO: ...Then goes with it.


JULY: (As Regina) Oh, do you want a little scratching, kitty?

MONDELLO: A little bit later, the reason becomes clearer.


MOLLY PARKER: (As Evangeline) It's so - the cat has its own personality. I mean, when you invest like you did, it's not just an idea of a cat. It's great. OK, moving on.

MONDELLO: Madeline's taking an experimental theater class, and if the trick to acting is inhabiting a role, she's got it down. Her teacher Evangeline is all about emotions. Picking her up from class, Madeline's mom Regina seems uneasy with teenage emotions - quick to panic.


JULY: (As Regina) Are you OK?

HELENA HOWARD: (As Madeline) Yes. Oh, my God, we just mooned Evangeline (laughter).

JULY: (As Regina) You did?

HOWARD: (As Madeline) Yes.

JULY: (As Regina) I thought something had happened.

HOWARD: (As Madeline) Mom, what? We just ran away.

JULY: (As Regina) Were they - like, they were mean to you, or...

HOWARD: (As Madeline) No, no.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Josephine Decker is a specialist in what you might call freeform indie films of which this is probably her freest. She leaves it to viewers to decide how they feel about characters, and initially at least, that means mom seems sketchy. The acting teacher seems a good influence, really listening to Madeline.


HOWARD: (As Madeline) I dreamt I slammed by mother's hand in iron. I couldn't breathe. I felt like I was underwater watching her.

PARKER: (As Evangeline) Anything like that - you can always share it with me. Do you feel safe around your mom?

MONDELLO: But first impressions may be amiss. Mom talks about Madeline's medication running out. And Evangeline, ever prodding at emotions, starts a new improvisation that's not about cats.


PARKER: (As Evangeline) I was thinking we could explore the dream that you were telling me about and maybe act it out.

HOWARD: (As Madeline) Dream?

PARKER: (As Evangeline) The one that you - with the iron, and you slam your mom's hand. It's so...

MONDELLO: Filmmaker Decker and her actors have talked quite a bit about process since the film premiered at Sundance. They say they workshopped and improvised an experimental film about experimental theater. The aim, though, was to explore identity - a young woman, a teenager, who's still finding herself, being pushed to do that in public with an eerie, distressing sound designed to put the audience inside the head of a possibly unbalanced leading lady.


HOWARD: (As Madeline) The day started out. We were in the car. She thought my friends hated me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Are they bullying you? Is that it?

HOWARD: (As Madeline) She thought my friends were being mean to me.

MONDELLO: Teenager Helena Howard makes a heart-stopping professional debut as Madeline caught between Molly Parker's manipulative acting teacher and Miranda July's differently manipulative mom. It's often said that to bridge the distance between acting and real life, you need to inhabit a part. But live it - filmmaker Decker suggests that would be an acting exercise too far.

The director doesn't hesitate to push the audience too far or at least further than most films. The events in "Madeline's Madeline" aren't just ambiguous. They're shot from odd angles. They drift in and out of focus. They get splintered in the editing. They mirror, in other words, the confusion in the work we're watching on screen. But if it's not always clear what we're seeing, there's never a question about the emotions in which we're being swept up. "Madeline's Madeline" is a seriously strange piece of filmmaking, as puzzling and ultimately as mesmerizing as its heroine. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.