"In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order." Experimental theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) says this to her troubled teenage star Madeline (Helena Howard) early on in Josephine Decker's Madeline's Madeline, and it's a sentiment the movie both takes to heart and persistently questions. Decker's film, the best thing I saw at Sundance this year, is built around tension and chaos. Its unruly scenes emerge out of disorder, out of chants and shrieks and fractured images, and always threaten to fade back into abstraction. The focus slips; the camera drifts. Whispers and wails intrude. The narrative might be shattered, but the film's slipstream of emotion is powerful.
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. 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). 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 desire? A fear?) July cracks the most mysterious of smiles, perched between terror and bewilderment.
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 -- being suspended between clarity and entropy.