As much as Josephine Decker differs from her protagonist in Madeline’s Madeline, she also knows the coming-of-age film stems in part from her own upbringing.
Decker spent her formative teenage years going to school in the Park Cities, where she admits she struggled with self-image and social awkwardness.
“I didn’t always feel like I fit in at Highland Park,” Decker said by phone. “As a woman growing up in Dallas, there’s a lot of pressure to be beautiful. I remember I would cry if I had forgotten to wear mascara during my freshman year of high school.”
Decker’s eccentric backstage theater drama is more concerned with atmosphere and mood than linear narrative. The precocious yet emotionally troubled Madeline (Helena Howard) is an aspiring teenage actress who becomes extremely immersed in her role-playing exercises, causing the lines between fantasy and reality to blur. While her teacher (Molly Parker) encourages her erratic behavior, her mother (Miranda July) fears she might have gone too far.
“She’s going through the challenges of a phase where our bodies and our minds are often at odds,” Decker explained.
The 37-year-old filmmaker, who graduated from Highland Park High School in 1999 before earning a comparative literature and creative writing degree from Princeton, said the project became a cathartic experience, both emotionally and artistically.
“It was one of those things I had to make. Part of my being needed it to come out,” she said. “Making a work about a teenager who’s part of a community that feels like it’s saving her — that’s what I went through.”
Decker, the daughter of a Democratic political activist, relocated with her family from Houston to the Park Cities when she was 10. After eight years, she emerged grateful for the experience, finding community in her church and on her school’s cross country team that helped to tame some psychological demons.
“As much as I sometimes struggle with the ethics that we were a very wealthy neighborhood, and our public school was basically a private school, I had the most amazing education and some really incredible teachers who deeply supported my work,” she said. “I was obsessed with literature and storytelling. They really encouraged my voice.”
From an artistic perspective, the film was an opportunity for Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely) to challenge her approach to collaboration, which she said presented a moral dilemma of sorts in her prior projects.
“A lot of my art is deeply inspired by real people and real friendships and real connections. It’s kind of knowing the boundaries. You want to collaborate with real people, and tell stories based on their real lives, and you real life, and then you want to fictionalize it and have total control over the final product and you don’t want anyone to be angry. It’s not realistic,” Decker said. “I’m coming to terms with that. The way I’m inspired to make art is also to some degree problematic. Where does real life end and where does storytelling begin?”
Madeline’s Madeline, which generated buzz immediately after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in January, features the big-screen debut of Howard in the title role. Decker met the young actress while judging performances at a teen arts festival in New Jersey where Decker is a regular instructor.
“She performed this monologue that was just stunning. I burst into tears,” Decker said. “When the session ended, I ran her down and told her I wanted to work with her on something.”
During much of the next year, Howard improvised scenes with Decker and a group of seasoned New York improv actors one weekend a month, helping to develop a character that eventually became Madeline.
“She was very much a part of the creative process, pulling from moments in our own lives, moments in our parents’ lives, moments of art making — and also creating a work around issues of mental illness and how we had faced that in our own lives,” Decker said. “It was very exciting and spiritual. When you ask for feedback, it can be kind of terrifying and overwhelming, but it’s also filled with growth. I’ve never grown so much in one summer.”
The film has been praised for its lyrical, almost dreamlike style. But Decker’s inspirations are wide-ranging, from avant-garde performance art to mainstream movie fare like Babe and Pretty Woman.
“I’m just making things that feel true to me,” she said. “I love working on deeply personal stories. My intention isn’t to make only super-weird indie movies. It’s more about finding a character that I can relate to in some way, and then trying to get inside of their mind.”