Call it the year’s Best Unpopular Picture.
“Madeline’s Madeline,” written and directed by Josephine Decker, is experimental, weird and sometimes baffling with its soft-focus camerawork, discordant soundscapes and fragmented presentation of its title character’s messy self-discovery journey.
But the film, opening Friday at the Roxie, is also thrillingly original, brilliantly acted, surprisingly accessible and never dull as it combines a coming-of-age story with an examination by a filmmaker of her problematic creative process.
Sixteen-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard), who lives in New York City, purrs and otherwise waxes strange and feline in an early scene. It turns out that she is doing an exercise assigned by her immersive-theater director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), in whose upcoming play she’ll be appearing.
Madeline does, however, have unspecified mental-health issues, and in one of Decker’s ambiguously presented scary moments, the teen attacks her mother, Regina (Miranda July), with a steaming iron. Madeline describes the incident as having occurred in a dream. Decker leaves us unsure.
Madeline also is biracial. Occasionally, Decker references this factor in the dialogue, but generally she weaves it subtly into the story’s fabric.
The drama focuses on Madeline’s relationships with her two maternal influences: Regina, who acts like a scared child around her unstable daughter, and the more collected Evangeline (Molly Parker), whose company Madeline prefers.
Fascinated by the talented Madeline, who seems able to act from “inside the cat,” Evangeline revises her entire play, placing Madeline and her volatile relationship with Regina center-stage.
Manipulatingly, Evangeline encourages Madeline to explore emotional places that may not be safe terrain for the vulnerable teenager. Then she works the stories Madeline has shared into the theater piece she’s creating.
Is what Evangeline presents as a collaborative work of art, in fact, an act of stealing and cultural appropriation? Has she emotionally violated her young star?
Decker’s experimental style — blurred and jittery camerawork, a cacophonous soundtrack, fragmented storytelling — sometimes prevents clarity. The shortage of concrete detail can be frustrating.
But the fragments contain stirring material, whether Regina is frantically trying to get Madeline’s prescription refilled, or Madeline is simply walking and talking with a boy she’d like to kiss. The pieces add up nicely.
Through her emotionally complex depiction of the Madeline-Evangeline dynamics, Decker makes her critical assessment of the collaborative process rather fascinating.
The climax, which features a gloriously impromptu burst of artistic spirit, is electrifying.
Howard, a stratospherically gifted newcomer, blends intellect, emotion and physicality to astonishing effect. Madeline ranks with the very different but equally unforgettable heroines in the current “Leave No Trace” and “Eighth Grade” in her ability to make us want to follow her anywhere. Her late-inning monologue is a knockout.
Parker and July, meanwhile, are excellent, though the movie is Howard’s show.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Helena Howard, Molly Parker, Miranda July
Written and directed by: Josephine Decker
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes