Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Review: "The Tracey Fragments"

Ellen Page is making a pretty good career out of playing precocious teenagers. She first appeared on my radar in Hard Candy in 2005, as a 14 year old girl who is picked up by an online predator, only to turn the tables and become the predator herself. She then rose to stardom in Juno, a movie that I found terribly overrated.

In her latest film, The Tracey Fragments, she plays a disaffected 15 year old girl who is an outcast at school and constantly teased for her lack of breasts. We are introduced to Tracey on a public bus, where she sits in the back naked but for a ratty old curtain wrapped around herself. She is looking for her nine year old brother, who has gone missing after she hypnotized into believing he is a dog.

If you're looking for an easy, normal movie, stop reading now.

What makes the film so unique, and really the only reason it is getting any attention apart from Ellen Page, is that nearly every frame is done in split screen. Nearly every second of the movie is split into sections, giving us alternate views of the action, and often fragments of Tracey's thoughts or memories at any given moment.

It's a daring experiment that tries to rewrite the language of cinema, and it works for the most part. The typical shot/reverse shot technique is struck down by showing them all at once. It has a tendency to wear thin after a while, but it's surprisingly easy to get used to. It may not always serve a narrative purpose, but you have to give it points for sheer audaciousness.

The story is essentially told backwards. We meet Tracey on the bus after all the action has happened, and through her (often fractured) eyes we see the events that led her to where she is now. It is a world populated with high school bullies, manly female psychiatrists, deadbeat parents, angsty teenagers, shady street figures, and mobsters. We're a long way from Juno here.

It's a dark journey, and one that is ultimately a downer. But the film has a singularly wry sense of humor that one comes to expect with the presence of Page. Her outsider observations are razor sharp and often very funny, but I never felt like the film added up to a satisfying whole.

I get that Tracey is a unique outsider, but why? Why are her parents so distant? Why did she hypnotize her brother? The actions of the characters don't always make sense, as the characterizations tend to be very broad, and much of it seems to come from the Teen Angst 101 text book. Of course, they are often seen through Tracey's eyes ad the categories in which she places them become almost caricature-like. But Tracey is an enigma, and the film never quite lets us in.

There are quite a few things to like about The Tracey Fragments, but the ultimate feeling I left with was one of contrivance - of difference for difference's sake. Individual pieces of the film work, but they don't come together to make a complete experience. It's an experimental film, and as such some things work and others don't. But you have to give the filmmakers credit for trying to do something different and unusual. It's an attitude cinema could use more of, even if doesn't get hit the mark every time.

GRADE - **½ (out of four)

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS; Directed by Bruce McDonald; Stars Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Maxwell McCabe-Locos, Slim Twig, Erin McMurtry; Not Rated

3 comments:

nick plowman said...

So I have seen half of this, and it makes very little sense so far...but in a good kind of way. I like your review though, and I like Ellen, so I guess I better make a plan to see the other half ;)

Marina said...

I'm rather surprised at the lack of love for this film. True, it does have it's share of problems but I don't think McDonald is getting enough credit for creating a film which is so on the edge. Agreed, it does feel distant and rather lacking in substance at times but I think the visuals are nearly enough to compensate.

I really disliked this the first time I saw it at VIFF but on second viewing a few weeks later, I was surprised at how much more I enjoyed the film. Because I knew the direction in which the story was going, I could concentrate more of my attention on what was going on in the various different frames making the experience that much more intense. McDonald places a lot of the emotional bits in the peripherals of the frame.

I urge folks to give this multiple viewings. It's extremely rewarding.

Matthew Lucas said...

I found parts of the film very emotional, especially the end, which I found devastating. I just didn't find it satisfying over all. You've got to give McDonald credit for his audaciousness, and I do like the film, I just don't think it's a great film.