As Madeline, the 19-year-old Howard — an explosively gifted performer — seizes your attention. She plays a precocious teen with what may or may not be mental issues (there are mentions of a psych ward stint, and glimpses of pill bottles and medical bracelets, but as with so much in this film, we’re never sure how much of what we’re seeing is real). Madeline’s talent is being both nurtured and exploited by Evangeline. Improvisational role-play exercises in rehearsal come too close for comfort to Madeline’s volatile relationship with her caring, fragile mother Regina (Miranda July). The girl immerses herself in the part, then takes her work home: Acting exercises in one context become troubling behavior in another. Is she building a character or is the character building her? At times, Madeline pretends to be a cat, a pig, a sea turtle. She attacks her mother with an iron. (Was it a dream? A memory? A desire? A fear?) Mom observes her daughter with anticipation and fright; July cracks the most mysterious of smiles, perched between terror and bewilderment. A flash of pride can, in an instant, become a moment of deep humiliation.
Evangeline’s theater work is built around dance and poetic movement, and Decker and her cinematographer, Ashley Connor, shoot the bodies in motion with an eye toward sensuality and distortion. They do the same for reality, too. The camera constantly wanders among faces and gestures, as if overwhelmed by all the possibilities of where to go. For a viewer, it’s a curiously lovely feeling — that sense of being suspended between clarity and entropy.
Decker built the picture around Howard after seeing her at a teen performance contest in New Jersey. Much of what’s onscreen was developed out of improvisations with the young actress and others. But whereas directors like Mike Leigh use this form of collaboration to create self-contained works of immersive realism, Decker deconstructs the very nature of a closed work of art. Who is Evangeline to tell Madeline’s story, and who is Decker to make a movie around Howard? Slowly, Madeline realizes her power in Evangeline’s world. The latter brings her into her life — does she want to displace the girl’s mother? — and hesitant, haunted Madeline begins to seize control. And onscreen, Howard comes to dominate the frame more and more. Who’s telling this story? you might wonder, and therein lies the radical, breathtaking beauty of this film. Madeline’s Madeline is at once intoxicated by the world and deeply terrified of it.