"There is no pretension in Page's performance, only a professionalism and artistic mastery on display"|
by Jason P. Vargo, first published on July 11, 2008
Ellen Page received an Oscar nomination for "Juno." While her role as a pregnant teen is the one most people will know her for, it is her turn as Tracey Berkowitz in "The Tracey Fragments" which should be recognized. Yes, her sarcastic, droll, pop-culture happy Juno won the hearts of audiences and critics yet lacked a certain depth; Tracey, on the other hand, is required to run the gamut of emotions as well as keep a fragmented-pardon the pun-film afloat.
Tracey Berkowitz has a problem: she has hypnotized her younger brother Sonny into thinking he is a dog. In and of itself, this is a small problem. But when she leaves her house despite being grounded, prompting Sonny to follow her, a series of events is put into motion. The young boy goes missing, Tracey leaves home permanently and has sex with the boy of her dreams, among other sordid situations.
Even if the narrative leaves something to be desired, I will give style points-to an extent-to director Bruce McDonald for having the audacity to create a visually provocative film. Aside from the events being out of order, each episode in Tracey´s life is relayed to us as she might remember it: in pieces scattered here, there and everywhere in between. By presenting each element of the story outside of its actual context, McDonald fairly effectively replicates the way in which we remember. Very rarely is it in linear form; rather, it is sporadic, choppy and exaggerated to our own point of view.
To that end, nearly every memory scene is played in several different frames on the screen, akin to the style convention on "24" and, to a lesser extent, to Ang Lee´s "Hulk." When one or two frames focus on telling the story, the others center on objects in the room. It allows the action to play out in continuous takes with detail still being presented. By using this technique, McDonald adds to the pastiche feeling of the production.
And aside from Page, who portrays an array of emotions in "The Tracey Fragments," there isn´t much else to recommend. By presenting the story out of continuity, it is difficult to get a handle on it until late in the production. Thus, we never develop an affinity for any supporting character or even the ordeal Tracey herself goes through. We only have Page´s performance to ground us in the narrative. We often forget Page is only 21 years old and yet is cast as a teenager, not to mention younger characters. She has a natural affinity for being the odd one out, so to speak. There is no pretension in her performance, only a professionalism and artistic mastery on display.
It is because she remains grounded through the entire film the production doesn´t completely run off the rails. Oh, but it tries. The visual style I mentioned a minute ago? Unique, but tired. Fun, but completely overused. Yes, I understand it feeds into the theme of the movie (the fragmentation of memory and how that affects a person). I even applaud McDonald for taking on the added filing and editing burden to make his vision come to fruition. It just happens to be too much from start to finish.
Then there´s the story, or what passes as a story here. Based on a novel by Maureen Medved, I would assume the narrative device of vignettes coming together to form a more perfect whole works better on the page. Why? They could be broken down into specific chapters, as opposed to running into one another in film form. There needs to be a clear delineation between the first "fragment" (as each chapter is called here) and the next so we know its time to move on to something different. All we end up getting is a run on scene spanning the length of the movie.
There is an added component I haven´t mention yet: the inability of the plot to maintain the truth. Again, I will grant memory is an odd and imperfect thing. It distorts what we remember, exaggerating certain parts and adding a layer of fantasy to each event. However, when a film is dealing with the issue of memories, especially when they are put together out of order, there needs to be an understanding between the product and the audience that what is presented will be honest to what has come before. We can´t have Tracey daydreaming about Billy Zero (Slim Twig) rescuing her and then, by the end of the film, pushing her out of a car. It brings everything else we witness into question, in essence telling us to ask "what is real?"
And for a film demanding the audience pay attention to every major and minor character, it´s unfair to throw another layer to decipher on the screen. (It should be noted that the daydream sequences are tinted differently, normally a tip off, if every other scene had been presented without manipulation. They aren´t.)
Up until now, I haven´t discussed the specifics of the plot for one good reason: to mention one aspect would mean having to mention a great many more, based on the nature of the story itself. So we´ll speak in broad generalities. There is no attempt at eliciting emotion from the audience on behalf of any of the characters. Unsympathetic brutes (as in the case of Mr. Berkowitz), laughable (Dr. Herker, the shrink), inconsequential (Lance the who knows what) or superfluous (Billy Zero), there seems to be an intent in the original material to throw in as many types of personalities as possible to cover up the fact we never get to know any of them very well.
That, I think, is the crux of the problem. With the personalities on display, an underlying rationale is needed to make them feel human as opposed to mere caricatures. It´s something we don´t get in the finished film. The narrative moves methodically from one memory to another, expecting us to fill in the pieces. But when we know from the very beginning the production is more interested in the style over the substance, we can´t help but mentally check out since no payoff is on the horizon. Indeed, in "The Tracey Fragments," there isn´t any. All we get to is the expected. And that´s terribly ordinary for a film trying to be anything but.
I have to hand it to the folks over at Image Entertainment. For a movie which made a grand total of $42k in the worldwide box office, the video presentation is quite impressive. Displayed in the original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, the transfer generates an omnipresent feeling of a memory. While the blacks are solid and consistent throughout, other scenes appear washed out and dingy, as if being seen through a filter in the mind. Grain is present, as I´m guessing it was originally. Without the director or other production personnel chiming in on a commentary track, knowing what possible imperfections in the video output are intentional and which aren´t is extremely hard, especially considering the look they were most likely going for.
No surprises here, with two different English audio tracks here: 5.1 and 2.0. In an odd twist, the 5.1 version sounds louder than the 2.0 flavor (usually it is the reverse). Both remain clear and free of defects. Dialogue isn´t overpowered by ambient sound or the score. Although neither option is a stand out in any way, they are serviceable enough. The 5.1 edition doesn´t take advantage of its extra speakers, sadly. A small audio effect here or there wouldn´t have materially helped the film; it would have only added a bit of extra oomph to the tech specs.
Now here´s where the disappointment comes in. With a star like Ellen Page, I would have expected some meaty bonus features. Instead, what we´re given is a paltry seven minute "making of" featuring short interviews interspersed with film clips. All the participants are overjoyed at the finished product, especially McDonald, who touts the modular look of the film. (Shooting lasted two weeks; editing took 5 or 6 months.)
Then there are winning and runner-up entries into the "Tracey: ReFragmented" contest. Five different people went on line, remixed various clips provided by McDonald and were submitted back to the director. He picked one winner and four runners-up. A rather pointless and boring affair, most likely included to fill out the extras package. "The Single Frame" is nothing more than an excruciatingly long 5:14 photo gallery featuring the work of Matt O´Sullivan. Each image is preceded by a caption explaining what we´re about to see. They are automatically advancing.
Two trailers begin the disc ("Autumn Hearts" and "6 Reasons Why") while this film´s trailer is also included.
Some movies will not let you like them. The culprit can be an unsympathetic protagonist, a flimsy plot or an over reliance on a filmmaking technique. Such is the case with "The Tracey Fragments." A germ of an idea is tucked away in the production, yet both screenwriter (and original author) Medved and director McDonald can´t seem to get at it with any regularity. Certainly telling the story out of sequence doesn´t help; neither does the preponderance of frames within each shot. It´s all style over substance. The only saving grace is Page, though even her talent isn´t enough to save a forgettable endeavor.