We tried to piece together the fragments of Judge Kerry Birmingham's shattered mind, but it was mostly track listings from U2 albums.|
by Judge Kerry Birmingham, published on August 11, 2008
Actress Ellen Page had been working steadily by the time Juno hit big and automatically granted her some cachet. In Hard Candy, she had played a jailbait nymphette whose seeming naïveté masked a calculating mind bent on punishing a pedophile in over his head; in sobering contrast, she played sweet-natured superhero darling Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand a year later. What were the makings of a career as a chameleonic character actress quickly careened into a post-Juno turn as both a leading lady and a capital-S, capital-A Serious Actress.
The Tracey Fragments is, make no mistake, Page's show, possibly only overshadowed by the film's narrative gimmick, a constant series of frames-within-frames that makes Ang Lee's use of it in Hulk seem staid and linear by comparison. It's an interesting device, and one that would almost assure a place on the fringe of independent cinema, a film festival curiosity. Page's presenceas the only name actor in the castbrings some spotlight to the proceedings. The result is still a curiosity, but one anchored by a charismatic lead in a characteristically complicated role in a complicated picture. Welcome to Tracey's fractured brain.
Facts of the Case
Tracey Berkowitz (Ellen Page, Juno) is a fifteen-year-old, "just a normal girl who hates herself," living a miserable life of teenage angst and lower middle class squalor, forced to deal with a crumbling home life, bullying classmates, and a forceful crush on the new boy at school (Slim Twig). When Tracey's brother, Sonny (Max McCabe-Lokos), goes missing while under her supervision, she embarks on a long journey into the heart of the city and deep into her own splintered mind to find him.
It's impossible to address The Tracey Fragments without addressing its central conceit, the constantly morphing frames-within-frames that provide the more literal allusion of the movie's title. Director Bruce McDonald, working from a script by Barbara Medved based on her own novel, does his best to make the gimmick relevant to the plot (and indeed it functions as both technical and narrative device), but it is still ultimately a novelty. Breaking up the frame is nothing new, of course. To use a recent example, Mike Figgis has been known to indulge in it in films like Timecode and Hotel. But the advent of digital technology and its increasingly sophisticated uses has allowed McDonald and his team of editors to move within the frame in incredible ways. McDonald's frame isn't merely split into quadrants like Figgis's or arranged superficially like Lee's; The Tracey Fragments' frames bubble and whirl and cascade across the screen, dissolving and juxtaposing and repeating and starting all over again. The effect is just as dizzying as it sounds: technical junkies will revel in McDonald's miasma of overlapped footage, found shots, and occasional audio flourishes. A goodly portion of the audience will wonder who is doing this to them, and why.
It's a fair question, and one no doubt asked by Tracey herself. Tracey's state of mind, the metaphorical content of the title, is about as addled as the audience invited to peek into her head. Tracey's home life, trapped in a gray suburban hell with loveless parents, finds solace only in a tentative crush on fellow classmate, Billy (Twig, looking like one of the Goth kids from South Park) and her brother, whom she has temporarily hypnotized into believing he's a dog (a plot quirk that feels lifted from a much more light-hearted movie). All Tracey really has is her fantasy life, one in which classmates relentlessly pursue her through the halls like villagers after Frankenstein's monster and her tentative romantic fumblings play out like a chirpy sitcom theme song or Sid & Nancy-styled epic, misunderstood love. Presented initially nude and wrapped in a shower curtain while riding a city bus, Tracey recounts the facts as she sees theman unreliable narrator indeed. What follows, over a scant 77 minutes, is a broken little girl's tale: the outcome is never really in question from the moment Tracey bolts from her parents' home, leaving behind the only clue of her missing brother's whereabouts. It's the journey that matters, and without ever saying as much, this is Tracey's confession and attrition, racing into the seedy cityCanada has rarely looked so dirty on filmeven though she already knows what she'll find.
Page holds the piece(s) together. Diminutive and moon-faced, Page is deceptive in the power she brings to the screen, allowing her to play the mature-naif types at which she excels with some degree of believability. Tracey wouldn't be out of place with Juno Macguff and Kitty Pryde at the family reunion, smoking cigarettes outside while the rest of the clan mingles at the buffet table. Page's physical presence is somewhat of a liability. It occasionally interferes, such as the scene where Tracey unleashes a stream of profanities in her mother's face, seeming more comical than shocking. The hallucinatory framework mitigates a lot of these problems, these gaps in logic and tone: when it's all internal, everything we're witnessing is suspect. Page, essentially delivering an extended monologue for long stretches of film, is the fuel for the film's editorial engine, the force behind the raw narrative chopped and dissected and interspersed with visual non-sequiturs. Without a lead of Page's caliberand one still forming as an actress, doubly impressivethe gimmick would come across as just that, a gimmick. Page, however, gives the filmmakers some real emotional juice, and their bending of her performance to suit the hiccupping frame structure is the real feat of the movie.
Sound and picture are nominal, if otherwise unremarkable. The extras include a brief, flat making-of featurette; the theatrical trailer; and "The Single Frame," basically an image gallery that doesn't allow you to scroll through the images as they play as one long slideshow. The "Tracey: Re-Fragmented" section showcases the winners of an online competition in which McDonald posted all of the film's raw footage and challenged users to edit the film as they saw fit. A unique competition and an apt one, considering the spotlight the movie puts on the art of film editing, and the contest's winning entry, by Joel Norn, is included here, as well as handful of short-listed entries. A commentary by McDonald and his editors would have been a fascinating exercise in technical commentary, but McDonald only gives a few scant thoughts in the featurette.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's certainly a lot of technical filmmaking to admire in The Tracey Fragments, but some prominent story deficiencies coupled with the overwhelming editing technique is a lot to absorb. The use of multiple frames already invites the suspicion that this is style over substance, and a devotion to needless plot tics hurts the story, such as Tracey's therapist, played by character actor Julian Richings (My Life Without Me) in drag and a precious indie-rock soundtrack that suggests a feeble stab at art house credibility (and commercial viability). A movie this involved in its own weight and cleverness can be wearisome, and more than a few viewers will be turned off by the film's lofty gravity and willful starkness. It may be a heartier breed of indie film fan that can withstand the multi-pronged assault of The Tracey Fragments; on the other hand, those fans might be kidding themselves and it really is that tiresome.
Love it or hate it, The Tracey Fragments is bound to provoke a reaction, which is enough of a feat for any movie with anything to say. Be wowed by the frames-within-frames or dismiss them as pretentious art house overkill; go with Tracey on her hellbent journey into the grimy city or call it out as a dull, "movie" attempt at authenticity. Page fans will like her performance, if not necessarily her character. The duality of each of these choices is easier than broken little Tracey's options, so be grateful you're neither her nor her very tired editors.
I'm going to say Not Guilty, though a stronger case for prosecution could easily be made. Tracey Berkowitz is ordered to get it together already and get on medication or something for God's sake.