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August 08, 2018 at 11:30 AM EDT
We gave it a B+

Madeline’s Madeline has one of the best trailers in a while: a raw, hypnotic collage of sounds and images set to a sort of shouty-clappy campfire-gospel singalong.

The movie itself can’t possibly sustain that kind of energy over 90-plus minutes, though writer-director Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch) more than earns the label “auteur,” and all the connotations that come with it.

Her puzzle-like portrait of a precocious New York teenager torn between her overprotective mother (Miranda July) and her mentor (Deadwood’s Molly Parker, mercenary to the bone) hardly bends to narrative convention; for most of its runtime, really, it feels less like a film than a fever dream. But she also has the luck of casting newcomer Helena Howard, a young actress whose fierce, fragile magnetism transcends the arthouse exercise of the plot.

To help cope with an unspecified mental illness, Madeline has gotten involved with a local theater troupe, led by Parker’s Evangeline — a steely-eyed bohemian who seems to mete out high praise and cutting disapproval with a sort of calculated randomness.

That’s one thing for her mostly adult ensemble to take; but Madeline is much younger than most of them, and at some not-distant point has been institutionalized. And though July’s high-strung single mom Regina doesn’t realize it yet, she’s recently gone off her medications, too.

Madness is easy enough to convey in the medium of film: piling on jagged sound and jittery camera angles, surreal images and jump-cut chronology. Ashley Connor’s cinematography is deliberately blurred and off-kilter, and Decker leaves large pieces of her protagonists’ stories unfinished or unexplained. (Does Regina suffer from some form of the same condition as her daughter? Who is bankrolling all this experimental theater, anyway?).

She’s also an undeniably talented filmmaker, with a visceral gift for visual and emotional impact. Madeline is the kind of movie that won’t come anywhere near the mainstream, and clearly wasn’t meant to. But for the dozens of viewers it will almost certainly baffle or exasperate, there will be one or two completely captured by its peculiar magic. B+

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