by Bruce Bennett, published on May 9, 2008|
Tracey Berkowitz, the main character of "The Tracey Fragments," describes herself as "just a normal girl who hates herself." But throughout the film, it remains open to debate just how normal this especially confrontational and tormented girl is. What's beyond dispute, however, is that "The Tracey Fragments" is itself a striking formal departure from the Canadian actress Ellen Page's seemingly inexhaustible run of irony-armored, state-of-the-art, 15-year-old girl characters, a dynasty that began with 2005's "Hard Candy" and peaked with last year's self-congratulatory and curiously well-received "Juno."
Adapted by Maureen Medved from her own novel and monologue performances, "The Tracey Fragments" takes an unusually lingering look at adolescent angst, loneliness, and despair, as young Tracey falls prey to a dysfunctional family, cruel high school peers, and an infinitely larger and more hostile society beyond. During a climactic bus ride in which she is clad only in a floral-print curtain, Tracey delivers a direct and dour accounting of the events leading up to her unusual pairing of dress and transport.
But "The Tracey Fragments" doesn't just weave a novelistic cutup of timeliness and coincidences at a script level. To support Tracey's all-over-the-emotional-and-chronological-map experiential and narrative discourse, director Bruce McDonald has assembled a complex (and, frankly, exhausting) mosaic of split-screen visuals that riff and collide with one another as Tracey's quest to find her lost younger brother leads her further and further away from her grim world of near-universal scorn from everyone in her life.
Over a miraculously brief 14-day shoot, Mr. McDonald and his director of photography, Steve Cosens, documented Ms. Medved's script using multiple digital cameras and formats. Mr. McDonald and editors Jeremiah Munce and Gareth Scales then spent a protracted post-production period combining and collating the material into a constantly evolving sort of visually exteriorized interior monologue. It's an unusual choice, to say the least.
Split-screen effects were briefly the rage in the late 1960s and into the '70s after director John Frankenheimer saw a split-screen short subject by Charles and Ray Eames at the 1964 World's Fair and adopted the technique in his otherwise conventional 1966 race-car drama "Grand Prix." In the aftermath, directors Richard Fleischer, Norman Jewison, Robert Aldrich, and "Woodstock" helmer Michael Wadleigh all experimented with paralleling multiple points of view and story threads via multiple images in a single frame. But for the most part, the approach was confined to a finite number of sequences in each film.
Mr. McDonald's use of shots within shots is nearly uninterrupted and appears to have been motivated by a desire to access a level of intimacy and kindle a quality of subtext that would otherwise not be there for the multifaceted seeing. A scene that combines frames from a graphic novel Tracey is reading with comic-book renderings of the real-life crush she has on a boy at school is particularly effective in its unforced theatricality. Other scenes with less going on in them emotionally have more of an arbitrarily cut-up feel.
The results will likely appeal to those who either are drawn to the film by the high-minded technical audacity or identify with Tracey's stand-alone suburban martyrdom and self-destruction. The unrelenting shrillness and sameness with which Tracey's parents as well as her cross-dressing child psychiatrist, her would-be love interest, and her mean-girl nemesis at school dispute, harass, criticize, castigate, and exploit Tracey make the similar trials of Dawn Weiner in Todd Solondz's "Welcome to the Dollhouse" seem mild in comparison. Ms. Page, who is not only on-screen in every scene but in multiple images within each scene, gamely rolls up her thespian sleeves and digs into her down-and-dirty role, but there's more going on visually than dramatically in "The Tracey Fragments," and ultimately the film resembles an experiment in cinematically enhanced performance art more than a story of any sustained insight or conviction.