Review: "Madeline's Madeline" is too pretentious in its ambitions to fully work

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"Madeline's Madeline" is the third feature written and directed by Josephine Decker (after “Butter on the Latch” and “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”). Just like its predecessors this one tries to break more rules than it can chew on. The result is messy. There's a strange absurdity to 'Madeline" that sometimes renders it as a brilliant exercise and other times makes it feel rather pretentious and "off." 

What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” says a character earlier on in the film and if that clash of reasoning doesn't strike one as pompous then maybe this is the film for you.  Decker's goal is to blur the lines between reality and fantasy, to the point where you just can't tell which is which anymore. 

Madeline (Helena Howard), a disturbed New York teenager acts rather strangely when she starts to inhabit role-playing games devised by her theater director-teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker). The workshops that Evangeline prepares for her students consist of rather odd exercises which channel animal behavior. Madeline brings this behavior with her at home where mom Regina (Miranda July) struggles to "contain" her daughter. Regina's does slyly mention Madeline's stint at a psych ward which only enhances the ambiguous past of our lead protagonist as she continually defies our preconceived notions of who she is.

The film is a spiritual clash between Regina and Evangeline with Madeline caught up between both women. As Regina tries to push back on Madeline's strange behavior, Evangeline demands more of it, after all, how can you perfect your art without a little bit of risk-taking. Madeline uses  art-performance as therapy, to shelter herself from reality. Freeing oneself with absurdist behavior is something a mother would probably not appreciate done at home and Regina is rightfully angered. We, the audience, are caught up between the friction and try to break through Decker's ambiguity by finding some kind of hook to the story. The hook, however, comes with task to accept the force-fed ambiguity and leap into Decker's world. I couldn't. [C]

Episode by episode, scene by scene we are thrust into a pretentiously artful battleground of dance and improv. The narrative is frustratingly oblique, sparse, but to a fault. Despite Decker's insistence to not explain most of what is going on in her lead character's psyche, "Madeline's Madeline" is actually a rather simple story about Mother-Daughter discomfort and a third party that tries to exude further distance between them via her art.