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One of the most successful American art films in memory, “Madeline's Madeline” traffics in delusion, hope, mental illness and the perils/wonders of creativity. It is at once a draining and electrifying experience.

It is also surprisingly linear, at least for a while. Madeline (the debut of the stunningly talented Helena Howard) is a teenage girl who has found social and personal refuge in an experimental theater troupe run by Evangeline (Molly Parker). In between exercises playing animals or feeding off one another's movements, the troupe is working out what it's next work will be.

The bond between Madeline, who has some vague history of mental illness, and Evangeline, who sees herself as far more enlightened than she is, has whiffs of desperation on both sides. Madeline is trying to escape what she sees as one overbearing mother, Regina (Miranda July), by fleeing to another.

Yet at the same time, she's resentful when she finds out that Evangeline is pregnant and going to be an actual mother. Paging Dr. Freud.

It's unclear whether Evangeline realizes Madeline's fragile mental state; yes, she's acting, but she's also acting out, and the line between the two states becomes ever more blurry. When Madeline walks down a crowded New York City street mumbling like a madman is she playing one or being one? It's impossible to distinguish between the two.

It's fitting that July is in this film, since it resembles her own works as a director. But writer-director Josephine Decker is certainly her own woman, and she and Howard keep Madeline's distress, youthful energy, imagination and terror center stage in a film that's both haunting and revelatory. This is cinema most fine.

 

“Madeline's Madeline”

GRADE: A+

Not rated

Running time: 93 minutes

 

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