Waking Madison is a twisty psychological thriller from writer/director Katherine Brooks (famous in the lesbian cinema scene for Loving Annabelle). With a constantly evolving cast of characters and a set of intriguing, interconnected storylines that slowly shift into focus, it manages to recall films as disparate as Girl, Interrupted, Sybil, and even the barest whisper of Loving Annabelle.
We meet Madison (Sarah Roemer) in the very first scene, speaking directly to the camera (her own video camera). She resigns to lock herself in her New Orleans apartment for 30 days until she figures herself out – or else, she’s going to off herself. That’s it – no long exposition or warm-up scenes – our protagonist is here, messed up, and suicidal. It’s certainly a good primer for the movie’s intensity and confusing nature (who is Madison and what’s her problem?), and it all fits perfectly into the puzzle box of a plot.
From here, we learn a bit more about our heroine. She’s rushed to a hospital after a suicide attempt, where she meets Dr. Elizabeth Barnes (Elisabeth Shue – yes, the Elisabeth Shue) a gorgeous psychiatrist who wants to help. Madison suffers from blackouts, spells of time wherein she can’t recall how she got where she is, or what she’s been doing – a terrifying proposition that she shrugs off as something she “deals with.”
Dr. Barnes recommends that she check into her psychiatric hospital, where we meet the rest of the main cast. Grace (Erin Kelly, best known as Annabelle herself) is a charming, carefree sexpot who flirts with absolutely everyone and enjoys a “special” relationship with one of the male nurses. Alexis (Imogen Poots) is an impish young woman who still behaves like a young child, holding a stuffed animal at all times and speaking with an uncanny sing-song. Margaret (Taryn Manning) comes off as an especially angry, punk version of Lisa from Girl, Interrupted, the off-the-wall girl who absolutely cannot control herself or her darker impulses.
We get a glimpse of each of the women in sessions with Dr. Barnes and, of course, all of them have a nasty history of abuse and tragedy. A priest assaulted Alexis at a young age, while Grace became pregnant at 16 and got a back-alley abortion that went south, causing her to be permanently infertile. Margaret never wants to talk to Dr. Barnes, preferring instead to watch Bob Ross paint “happy little trees” on the common room TV and acting out whenever provoked in the slightest.
As we progress through the film, each character is revealed in layers, not the least of whom is Madison herself, who recalls her past with a deeply religious, abusive mother and often absent father. In one scene, Madison goes to visit mom and dad . Her mother is clearly mentally ill, seeing “the devil” in everyone and everything she doesn’t like and her father is forever harried and clad in a bathrobe. He clearly loves his daughter, but glosses over the ugliness of the past, preferring to placate mom while coaxing Madison to just stay a bit longer because he misses her.
These scenes show Waking Madison at its best – a broken girl and her dysfunctional but well-meaning family trying to come to grips with the reality of their life together. The acting is particularly good here as well, especially Roemer as a young woman barely able to hide her anger at the sins of the past and Will Patton as her tired, loving, guilty-consumed father. The visits are brief, but the drama runs high.
Life isn’t all therapy sessions and screaming matches as the hospital, as slinky Grace introduces Madison to drugs and an evening away on a sweaty dance floor in the French Quarter, where Madison makes a couple of sexy friends and proceeds to get very friendly with them both.
The lesbian content in the film is relegated to a few scenes (aforementioned love scene included), also including a brief moment in which Madison ponders buying a painting of two female lovers from an artist on the street. Her sexuality is less of a question than is her actual identity, especially with all of her blackouts.
There are several clichéd paths that the film could go down, but Waking Madison deftly avoids them all. In fact, there are two major, show-stopping “what just happened?” plot twists, one of which you may see coming and the second of which you most likely will not. Both reveal core truths that are only hinted at in other scenes. Needless to say, this is the sort of film that’s fun to watch more than once, counting the “signs” on subsequent viewings.
The acting is excellent across the board, including that of the supporting players. Erin Kelly deserves special mention as the impossibly sexy Grace, the most outspoken, thoughtful woman in the hospital next to Dr. Barnes. Shue is fantastic as the good doctor, exuding sympathy and love for her young charges even though she’s clearly buttoned-up and hiding something herself. Manning and Poots are playing “stock characters” more than anything. Theirs are difficult roles to handle without going over the top, but both perform admirably and manage to breathe sympathetic life into the material.
In fact, the only criticism of the film is its initial sense of confusion. But stick with it, and all will become clear in time. It’s not trying to get “cute” with weird scenarios and settings, as everything is actually very well-integrated into the clever plot. This is one to watch, proving that Katherine Brooks continues to be an important director to follow.
Watch the trailer for Waking Madison:
Waking Madison is available now on DVD.