A Meditation on ‘Madeline’ and Movie Mentors

Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” (Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories)
October’s featured Filmworks movie, “Madeline’s Madeline,” explores the role of the mentor through the relationship between Evangeline, the director of a physical theatre troupe, and Madeline, the newest member of the troupe who quickly becomes her protégé. Evangeline’s interest piques as she learns of Madeline’s traumatic past fueled by a strained relationship with her mother, a relationship that inspires the troupe’s latest project.

Although it is apparent to those around her that Madeline remains in an emotionally fragile state, Evangeline is determined to convey Madeline’s experience to an audience. In doing so, Evangeline pushes the boundaries of not only what is professionally ethical, but morally as well, as Madeline’s immersion into the realm of the performance pushes the edges of sanity.

Alongside “Madeline’s Madeline,” the films “Miss Stevens” and “Whiplash” also sift through the intricacies of what drives the character of the mentor as they attempt to straddle the fine line between inspiration and exploitation, which further becomes obscured in the pursuit of creation and art. The mentor is repeatedly faced with the choice: Do they maintain the integrity of the product or the person?

Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)
In “Whiplash,” legendary jazz master Terence Fletcher mentors aspiring musician Andrew Neiman at the renowned Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. Adamant on retaining an at times impossibly high standard, Fletcher berates Andrew during the Studio Band’s rehearsal. Unwilling to disappoint himself or his mentor, Andrew becomes consumed — to the point of self-destruction — with winning Fletcher’s approval.

Julia Hart’s “Miss Stevens” (Photo: The Orchard)
In “Miss Stevens,” English teacher Rachel Stevens becomes an accidental mentor to her student Billy, who she takes along with two other students to a drama competition. After hearing from the school’s principal that Billy’s been taking medication to stabilize his wavering mental health, Rachel, who is grieving the recent loss of her mother, empathizes with Billy during the trip. The connection between the two deepens as Rachel’s ability to remain apart deteriorates. Determined to reinforce the boundaries within a student/teacher relationship, she struggles to balance fostering the talented actor’s artistic pursuits, and preventing his disregard for his own wellbeing.

Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” (Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories)
The ever-present thematic question of how far is too far in the mentor relationship builds quickly in “Madeline’s Madeline.” This tension looms over all three of these films, forcing audiences to look within to come to their own conclusions about which way they themselves might tip the scales.

“Madeline’s Madeline” and “Whiplash” both convey the wide range of backlash that can occur from the severity of a mentor pressing at the human limitation of their muses. In contrast, “Miss Stevens” portrays the pitfalls of a mentor sympathizing with her protégé, perhaps to the detriment of her career.

Rachael Stubbert serves as the Filmworks communications intern for fall 2018. She studies English Literature at Fresno State.