If there’s one thing I don’t tend to spend a lot of time talking about in my reviews, proportionally, it’s probably acting. This is perhaps something a lot of film aficionados downplay given that the rest of the culture gives so much attention to movie stars and we like to give more attention to all the other elements that go into the making of a film. Still, acting is a huge part of what goes into the making of a film so it’s worth knowing about, the problem is that the “process” can be pretty malleable and hard to describe. In theory it’s a skill that can be learned, or at least there are a whole lot of people who claim that they’re able to teach it for a price, but it also seems to be a talent: something you’ve either got or haven’t got. Historically actors have been trained using a sort of trade that can be learned with a great deal of practice and trial and error, but more recently it’s been taken over by a system created by Konstantin Stanislavski resulting in “the method.” The Method has been in vogue since at least the 1950s and is today probably most associated with people who take it a bit too far and do crazy stuff on set to stay in character, but often it’s employed in more subtle ways where people tap into their own personal memories in order to evoke emotions. Of course plunging into your own emotions as part of your job like that feels like something that would be rather fraught, and that is part of the plot of the new independent film Madeline’s Madeline.
The main character of Madeline’s Madeline, Madeline (Helena Howard), is a sixteen year old girl who lives with her mother Regina (Miranda July) in New York and suffers some sort of mental illness which I don’t think is named in the film. It’s not terribly clear what Madeline’s school life is like (I think the movie is set in the summer) but she’s usually fighting with her mother, both for normal teenager reasons and also because her mother is a bit flighty and isn’t great at communicating with her. Madeline’s one respite seems to be the theater class/group that she’s attending which is run by a woman named Evangeline (Molly Parker). This is the kind of acting class where they have you pretend to be bacon frying or have you imitate a cat and they seem to be putting together some sort of experimental performance that seems to shift its focus frequently. As the film goes along Madeline increasingly becomes the centerpiece of this theater piece and the deeper she’s challenged to probe her inner feelings the more intense her various problems start to seem.
One of the lingering questions I had leaving Madeline’s Madeline was whether or not the people making it were under the impression that the play at the film’s center was ever going to be any good because to my eyes this theater troupe seemed really weird. The play that they were working on (was there supposed to be an actual play?) does not seem to have had a script and they seemed to be making it up as they went on in rehearsal. I suppose that Mike Leigh comes up with stories in a similar way, but most of the acting exercises they’re doing seem so abstract and weird that it’s hard to tell what form it would take. It’s also a bit curious that this isn’t an acting class for teenagers and some of the cast members are fully grown hippies, but that is bit by design as it’s one of the things about this experience that is stressing her out and getting her in a bit over her head. At its heart this movie is a character study (the fact that the protagonist’s name is in the title twice might have been the first clue) and it seeks to explore how Madeline’s mental illness affects her life and the movie probes to some extent how appropriate it is for an acting instructor to be probing into the mind of a sixteen year old with that kind of background given that this acting coach is not exactly a trained therapist.
Madeline’s Madeline has been labeled an “experimental” film, in part because it is very willing to disorient its audience. It drops us into the story without explaining the situation right away and it often uses unconventional close-ups and edits in order to sort of reflect the haziness in its protagonists mind. Helena Howard proves to be quite the discovery in the film and manages to both sensitively portray the character’s mental illness and also does a pretty good job of doing “acting within acting” during the theater troupe scenes. Of course given that the character is a complete unknown and that she, like the character, is an actress one is pretty much invited to speculate as to how different she is from Madeline and how much art is imitating life as the director in the film tries to put together a story around her. Looking up interviews and articles about the making of the film suggest that Howard is really not that much like Madeline and certainly doesn’t share her struggles with mental illness and that the making of the film was a much healthier collaboration than the making of the play in the film, but just the same I do think there’s supposed to be a parallel there that the audience is supposed to speculate on. To some extent I found that interesting, but I was not a fan of the way that the film ends, which could be viewed as an admission that you can’t tell someone’s story if you haven’t walked in their shoes but could also be viewed as a cop out where they never really tried.
*** out of Five