Cinematic Releases - Madhouse Mecca (2018) - Reviewed

Adulthood is at times, akin to living within the ruins of our choices.  While these storied locales often hold treasures of life experience and wisdom, often they are haunted places within the mind's eye, filled with guilt and hindsight.  Leonardo Warner's exceptional debut feature, Madhouse Mecca explores this terminal landscape of the soul with alluring imagery, an impeccable trio of performances, and a remarkably adult approach to its subject matter. 

As Sara and Jarrod's marriage slowly disintegrates, Sara strikes up an unlikely friendship with an exotic dancer named Lena that has unforeseen consequences.  What follows is an intimate dissertation on attraction and denial.  Warner's script brims with humanity.  This is not only one of the film’s many boons, it is also the entire foundation for the story.  Each of the characters are perfectly realized via natural dialogue and subtle performances.  Madhouse's intoxicating power is how it bewitches with both reality and fantasy, a duality that plays out daily in the mind.  Its characters are lost souls, both flawed and angelic, each of them searching for a solution.  Kristina Ellery's central turn as Lena is perhaps the best example.  Reeling from an academic disgrace she descends into an underworld of disconnect.  Gently estranged from even her loving father (Cult icon David Keith), she drifts through the shadows of the city searching for answers, be they in chemical form or pleasures of companionship.  Ellery's command is commendable, delivering a startlingly real embodiment of women who are exploited and forgotten every day.  

Erica Jenkins also stars as Sara.  Her chemistry with Ellery is evocative, summoning both the splendid danger of a complicated infatuation and the grounded melancholy of the day to day grind.  Tony Denman supports as Jarrod, Sara's well-meaning husband whose blue-collar career has stressed their already tested relationship.  These three performances wash over one another, constantly changing the focus.  While human drama is the center, these three talents refuse to allow it to become caricature.  Their characters form an interesting triumvirate: Ellery's rogue soul embodies the freedom of breaking norms while Denman's Jarrod is a tarnished bastion of commitment.  His scenes with Ellery, with the void of Jenkins' absence, are extremely powerful, blending both ends of a precarious spectrum in a whirlwind of things said and unsaid.  Jenkins' Sara completes the emotional trinity as the halfway between these extremes, and yet none of them actually feel extreme.  They feel real and this is Madhouse's wondrous heart. 

Hunter Chapman's cinematography harnesses elements of Michael Mann and Aronofsky with respect to visual compositions.  The Norfolk night life is both vibrant and dangerous, captured through gritty closeups and neon-soaked interiors.  The day time world, the place where transgressions are realized is portrayed as static and obtrusive, a reminder that the responsibilities of adulthood are eternal when facing the temporary reprieve of excess.  Warner's blocking is inspired here, with the characters' positioning during an excellent intro scene allowing for the dialogue to flow more freely.  It is these attributes that set Madhouse Mecca apart from other dramas.  Most entries in the genre are concerned with a "big moment" and Warner's refusal to give into this concept only enhances the film's mystique. 

Coming soon to the festival circuit and hopefully soon to a theater near you, Madhouse Mecca is one of the first great films of 2018.  In the times of a constantly connected world, individuals often find themselves isolated from their friends and family.  It is easy to lose one’s course and sometimes, it’s a benefit.  Warner's remarkable debut is a brief interlude that reminds us of this fact.  While desolation may find its way into our hearts and minds throughout our lifetimes, the lessons learned from our mistakes and adventures are often the very things that eventually define us.  

--Kyle Jonathan