Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Writer-director Josephine Decker possesses a certain talent for making the arty resemble the artful. Her new feature, Madeline’s Madeline, is ambitious and stylistically dense, employing associative montage and layered, nondiegetic sound in a fashion that might make you think of the great French writer-director Claire Denis (The Intruder, White Material) or such experimental film artists as Maya Deren or Barbara Hammer. In fact Decker’s filmmaking is so busy that one can easily get caught up in the technique and never question what it’s for. But despite introducing the major themes of mental illness and the art-making process, Madeline’s Madeline doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say about either. The film’s view of art is naive, if not self-serving, suggesting that the artist’s personal satisfaction means everything and that the quality of what he or she actually makes counts for little. Decker’s depiction of mental illness is also lazy and borderline offensive, but more on that in a moment.

After a brief, impressionistic montage introducing viewers to the 16-year-old title character (played by newcomer Helena Howard), Madeline settles in on its primary setting—the workshop of a New York experimental theater troupe. A woman named Evangeline (Molly Parker) oversees the performers, who range from teenagers to thirtysomethings, as they pretend to be various animals: some performers wear pig masks, others act as though they’re coming out of cocoons, and Madeline waddles around on stage like a turtle. Decker uses imaginative devices to convey the actors’ creative processes. At one point, she cuts to Madeline in a turtle costume on the beach before returning to the rehearsal space; at another, the sounds of grunts and groans overwhelm the soundtrack. Decker never establishes what these activities are actually for (are they part of a rehearsal for an upcoming performance, are they mere technical exercises?), thus suggesting that the creative process is more important than the final product. A later scene in which an ex-convict visits the workshop and tells the actors about his experience in prison is similarly vague. The only thing we see that comes out of this appearance is a brief acting exercise in which the performers “do an improv on the theme of no way out.”

The troupe’s mission never comes into focus as Madeline progresses. Evangeline proposes all sorts of creative directions for the group to follow—like drawing on the actors’ personal histories or creating more animal characters—but Decker never shows them pursuing these ideas to any recognizable end. Offstage, Evangeline develops a personal interest in Madeline, confiding in the teenage girl and asking her for ideas about the amorphous theatrical project. The two experience something like an epiphany near the end of the film, when Madeline improvises a short scene in which she plays her overprotective mother, and Evangeline, finding it brilliant, decides to reimagine her whole project around it. Given how many times the director has changed her mind over the course of Madeline, the epiphany doesn’t carry much dramatic weight, but the character seems happy about it, so I guess that makes it all right.

Decker never shows her characters discussing how an audience might respond to their work—or, for that matter, whether they intend to present their work to an audience. This omission has the perhaps unintended consequence of making the performers seem self-indulgent, especially when the art making we do see looks ridiculous and childish. Like the actors’ awkward posturing (which suggests a sort of dance therapy for people who can’t dance), Decker’s filmmaking consistently walks a line between exuberant and embarrassing. Decker likes to interrupt scenes by bringing in sound from another location, as when she plays one of the troupe’s irritating a cappella singing sessions over an argument between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July). The writer-director also likes to film conversations in shaky, shallow-focused close-ups, which suggest a nervous energy regardless of whether the characters are actually nervous or excited. Such devices exude an air of art for art’s sake but rarely comment meaningfully on the action.

One might argue that Decker’s dissociative aesthetic is meant to inspire sympathy toward Madeline, whom the filmmaker gradually reveals to have a mental illness. Decker never divulges the specific nature of the character’s condition, but it becomes clear that the illness has had a serious impact on her life. The opening scenes establish that Madeline’s mother worries incessantly about her daughter and that her worry sometimes gives way to nitpicking. Their relationship is contentious from the start, but because Decker presents it only in flashes, one might assume that the characters lock horns because this is what adolescents and parents typically do. It’s only 20 minutes into the film when the mother voices the source of her panic. She catches Madeline and some young men watching a porn video in the basement and angrily asks, “Do you think this is a good idea? Do you want her in a psych ward for another six weeks?” Later, she makes a nervous call to a doctor when Madeline has been without medication for a week.

July gives a fitfully poignant performance as Regina, suggesting the character’s fear and confusion in raising a mentally ill daughter. But because Decker focuses on Regina almost exclusively in times of stress and anger, the characterization feels incomplete. The same can be said for that of Madeline—not only does Decker fail to provide much information about the girl’s illness, she also fails to convey whether the character is handling her condition effectively. Is the theater workshop meant to be therapeutic for Madeline? (If so, what are the other performers getting out of it?) Madeline likes to act out at home as well as at the workshop—is it possible that Evangeline’s program is just turning the girl into an exhibitionist rather than leading her to work through her problems? Decker doesn’t answer any of these questions; rather, she throws a lot of style at them. The dense sound design and zigzagging editing could represent what it’s like to live with a mental illness (never mind which one), what it’s like to get lost in the creative process (never mind what it yields), or some combination of the two. Letting the audience determine the meaning of her aesthetic choices, Decker shows little interest in creating meaning herself.  v