Madeline (Helena Howard) is told she is not to be the cat, but to be inside the cat by a nurse - or who seems to be a nurse. But she is not entirely sure, and that is thanks to her desire to escape her life with her single mother Regina (Miranda July) by delving into acting classes, Madeline much taken with her new teacher Evangeline (Molly Parker) who teaches her new ways of seeing herself and regarding the world through the eyes of different characters she can adopt. However, over the past while Madeline has been suffering from behavioural issues and may not be entirely healthy mentally, not healthy enough to immerse herself in improvisational theatre: in fact, she may even snap.
Don't go into Madeline's Madeline expecting everything spelled out for you, it was not that kind of film, here it was far more about the impressions you derived of the characters and what you could piece together about their backgrounds and most importantly, their motivations. Who is being manipulated and who is the manipulator, we could ask? Are those roles able to be switched? Is the old, early psychiatric idea of female hysteria in any way valid, for instance? If you get a bunch of women and get them to organise something will their personalities and gender inform the matter for the better or the worse? Why is Madeline dressed up in a turtle costume at the beach?
All sorts of inquiries that may be running through your mind should you give in to the film's woozy, borderline chaotic tone. Before you take umbrage and raise concerns this was doing down the sisterhood, it should be pointed out the writing team was all-female, and the director was the intriguing Josephine Decker, who had cornered the market in none-more-indie dramas and quirkfests in much the same manner as one of the stars, Miranda July had attempted around the same time. Her casting was interesting, as on the surface this could have passed for one of her own eccentrically twee (and irritatingly idiosyncratic) efforts, which made her appearance concerning, as did reports this film had been heavily "workshopped".
Yet July was not cast in what you might think of as the Miranda July part, that went to Molly Parker who essayed the kind of reading you would have thought was a take-off of her co-star with Evangeline's self-obsessed and single-minded pursuit of expression at the expense of any logic, fictional or thematic. But nope, July was the worried parent who has witnessed her daughter's psychological maladjustment and rightly frets these acting classes are doing her no good whatsoever, all this artistic muse following essentially an excuse for self-indulgence to the extent that sanity is rejected in favour of a focus on the worst aspects of your personality since you believe they are your most valid elements of your mental constitution. Though even that takes in a certain embrace of woolly psychological interpretation.
None of this would be half as successful artistically had the centre been weak, but Howard was able to render her capricious, increasingly unstable character as convincing and someone to feel genuinely fearful for, with Madeline's bad decisions and tantrums seemingly encouraged by Evangeline because it makes for better improvisational theatre. If anything, the tutor is the villain since she takes no responsibility for setting off confusing and deceptively reassuring thoughts in her pupil's head, so that by the time she realises the poor girl has been driven off her rocker by her teachings and ludicrous notions of self-actualisation it is too late - but is it too late for Madeline or Evangeline? There is a danger with this stuff that it can be criticised for the same reasons it supposedly holds up what it depicts for criticism, and there were certainly viewers who took against it, yet Decker worked up a curious integrity and desire to do right by Madeline even as the girl sinks into madness; if you met this halfway, it would be rewarding. Music by Caroline Shaw.