A film review by Craig J. Koban
THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS
2008, no MPAA rating, 77 mins.
2008, no MPAA rating, 77 mins.
Ellen Page: Tracey Berkowitz / Libby Adams: Young Tracey Berkowitz / Ari Cohen: Mr. Berkowitz / Julian Richings: Dr. Heker / Max McCabe-Lokos: Lance / Slim Twig: Billy Zero / Daniel Fathers: Elegant Man / Todd Sandomirsky: Glaring Man / Kate Todd: Debbie Dodge / Ryan Cooley: David
Directed by Bruce McDonald / Written by Maureen Medved and based on her novel
don't think that anything will prepare viewers for THE
TRACEY FRAGMENTS. It's one of the most audacious, inventive, challenging,
intricately constructed, and maddening filmgoing experiences I've had in
a long time. I also think
it’s a masterpiece of spatial and editorial ingenuity.
It boldly looks towards classical concepts of storytelling,
filmmaking syntax and grammar and wildly and vivaciously creates its own
language to tell its sordid tale.
This is a work that is to be experienced...not watched.
film – based on a Canadian novel of the same name by Maureen Medved,
which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2007
– feels like its aesthetic choices and style overwhelms everything else.
Yet, THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is one of those very rare movies where the style is the main attraction and is vital to telling
the type of story the film is aiming for.
Directed by Bruce McDonald (a Canadian directorial maverick that
previously helmed indie-sensations like the mockumentary HARD CORE LOGO),
the film is an unrelenting onslaught on the senses as it bombards viewers
with its usage of split screen techniques throughout its running time that
are among the most daring and vigorous that I’ve seen.
This may be the very first movie that looks like a living,
breathing Piet Mondrian painting.
This is hardly the first film to use split screen techniques, but THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS may be the first to (a) use it predominantly throughout the film and (b) use it for reasons that go beyond just showing more information. The essence of the film is to show the inwardly tortured, fragile, and oftentimes delusional mindset of a 15-year-old teen (played in yet another fearless and incredible performance by Ellen Page) as she attempts to put little pieces together of how she came to lose track of her younger brother, who goes missing and prompts a police search. Stylistic heavy-handedness is often the bane of every film’s existence (yes, usually less is more), but here the choice of McDonald to make the screen image fragmented is absolutely critical to encapsulating the equally fractured mindset of its troubled young anti-heroine. She’s a lost soul that slowly loses her grasp on reality, so it’s only fitting that we see the film through her specific emotional viewfinder.
To many lay filmgoers, the splintered-up film frame will be headache inducing to the point of nausea. Yet, McDondald is not trying to tell a linear story via conventional means; rather, he’s trying to tell the film through an expressionistic mode to highlight the young girl’s inner desolation and despair. Other films that have used split screen are decades old (like John Frankenheimer’s GRAND PRIX or Richard Fleisher’s THE BOSTON STRANGLER or the George Lucas produced MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI), but those films made use of the technique to convey more information to the viewer.
THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS we get more information, per se, but the effect is
more ethereal and dreamlike. In some instances the
screen is often divided simply by a few frames here and there, whereas
other times it’s segregated into what seems like dozens of oddly shaped
pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (this film demands multiple viewings).
Sometimes we have two frames showing the same action under a
different viewpoint, other times we have a frame in real time and another
in future time, and more times a series of odd shapes and images contort
together to create one whole picture.
The film’s split screens create a hallucinatory ripple effect,
jumping back and forward in time, in and out of synch, and alternating
between emotional states of characters to create an oddly cohesive whole.
As McDonald indicated in a recent interview, watching this film is
like seeing a pebble thrown into water and then witnessing the series of
possible aftereffects appear before your eyes.
Make no mistake about it, the results are breathtaking and
exquisite…and a real mind-bending trip. There
is not one moment of disinterest on screen: this film is alive.
The film is set in Winnipeg and tells the story of young teen Tracey Berkowitz, a self-identified normal girl whom others hate as much as she hates herself. At the beginning of the film we see her sitting at the end of a bus wearing nothing but a shower curtain wrapped around her body; we don’t know the particulars, but the film is told ostensibly in a disjointed fashion and only later do all of the narrative pieces get put together to divulge how she ended up on that bus. Tracey is, in some ways, perhaps the only normal element in the film in the manner that she is a typical, conflicted and self-pitying adolescent. She is meager and small, physically under-developed for her age, and is ruthlessly and aggressively tormented by her school peers.
If being the victim of every form of insult regarding her flat-chestedness were not enough throughout the day, she then has to come home to her bitter and down-on-his-luck father (Arin Cohen) and her TV and drug addicted mother (Erin McMurty). Her only solace in her family is her baby brother Sonny (Zie Souwaqnd), whom – as her voice over informs us – has been hypnotized by her into believing he’s a dog. To make matters worse, her parents think that she’s the one that needs a shrink and she is sent to one that appears as a man in drag (which perhaps is either a manifestation of how Tracey sees and resents this doctor or – more simply – the doctor really is a man in drag).
Despite her long-suffering school and home life, she does develop a crush on a high school Goth heartthrob named Billy Zero (played by the equally unusually named Slim Twig). Some of the film’s most rousing and hilarious montages show Tracey’s romantic fantasies of what being his girlfriend would be like, but it’s her lust for Billy that is part of her journey towards self-implosion. Sonny goes missing, for reasons not immediately exposed, but as the film speeds by to its climax you grow to see how this happens through Tracey’s own short-sighted negligence (which is a direct result of her mad crush on Billy). The more she journeys in search of Sonny the more seedy and darker the places she visits are. She eventually hooks up with a lecherous looking stranger, Lance “from Toronto”, whom at first emerges as a savior, but as the film progresses we see how he puts her life in immanent danger in one of the film’s most vile scenes.
Is this film a series of Tracey’s collective memories? Is it a weird conglomeration of her deluded perceptions on the world and people around her? Is it showing the basic reality of her life with her own hallucinogenic spin on things? THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS – regardless of its authenticity – fully immerses viewers in Tracey’s increasingly bewildered emotional state that slowly snowballs downwards into despondency. None of the adult authority figures in her world are drawn with any tangible veracity (her parents are social troglodytes and the shrink she sees is robotic, uncaring and calculatingly stoic), not to mention that the object of her desire, Billy, is shown like a Rock N’ Roll messiah that, deep down, is simply no good for her. The only images that strike a true cord of those of her missing brother, which seems logical: Everything else in her world – except her simple and innocent relationship with her brother – is tainted.
The constellation of jumbled and disjointed images – as stated – only reinforces the impenetrability of Tracey’s feelings and emotions (McDonald shot the film in under two weeks, but spent nearly a year in post-production, using the latest digital technology to create his offbeat mosaic). Yet, no matter how otherworldly and strange the film feels and looks, THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS breathes with poignant genuineness and contains yet another performance of staggering and guileless determination by Ellen Page, who can add this film to her work in HARD CANDY and JUNO as a trio of work that more than clearly establishes her as the most confident and commanding young actress working today.
What continues to amaze me about Page is the sheer maturity and breadth she brings to each performance: In HARD CANDY she played a young teen that tries to do the unthinkable to a captured pedophile; in JUNO she played a more likeable and good natured teen with some decided rough edges, and here in THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS she plays her most wounded and imperfect adolescent yet. She has to do the incredible in the film by playing up to all of Tracey’s wildly divergent mood swings and bipolar-like sensibilities and still forge a character that we understand and relate to. It’s an astoundingly well-articulated and note-perfect performance that manages to coalesce between maniacal quirkiness and serene sensitivity. After watching Page here and seeing her work in conjunction with her last two films, you’ll be hard pressed to find a trio of better, back-to-back-to-back Oscar nomination-worthy performances.THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is a film that will easily frustrate and polarize audiences. Its shockingly bizarre and virtuoso use of cutting edge split screen techniques may have many people fleeing for the theatre exits within the first few minutes. However, if you’re patient and stay with the film it’s even easier to see what an absolutely thankless work of painstaking filmmaking resourcefulness and originality it is. Despite THE TRACEY FRAGMENT’S purposely erratic and splintered up split-screen visuals, its story that laughs at linearity and traditional plot construction, and it’s all-over-the map mood, the film creates a paradoxical cohesiveness with its underlining story of a misguided and disturbed youth whose search for her missing sibling mirrors a search for herself. The film’s visual palette may be rowdy, unruly, and chaotically nonsensical at times, but the film’s subtle, under-the-radar sincerity with its main character rings true. As a work that dives into the brittle psyche of its young character, THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS is an unmistakably potent and hypnotic journey of a troubled kid where you literally feel thrust into her mind through all of its 77 minutes. Few films command that sort of transcending allure and power over viewers.