Friday, April 11, 2008

The Tracey Fragments

After three films, I still haven't made up my mind about Ellen Page, and Bruce McDonald's The Tracey Fragments (2007) only clouds the issue further. Page's character, Tracey Berkowitz, is such a bundle of angst that nearly every scene turns into a shouting match. In this context, what does it mean to give a bad performance?

In any event, the film is not boring. McDonald fills the screen with multiple images, often different perspectives of the same event with three or four Traceys on screen at the same time. This doesn't give the viewer any more freedom than a more traditional film would, as the eye is invariably drawn to motion and sound. During dialogue scenes, McDonald even gives us matching eye lines so we understand where the characters are standing in relation to one another.

Adapted from a novel by Maureen Medved (which I haven't read), who also wrote the screenplay, the film unfolds mainly in flashback. It opens with Tracey sitting on a bus, draped in a shower curtain, and then goes back and fourth through time to explain how she got there. An unpopular teen in a small Canadian town, her father (Ari Cohen) is an abusive tyrant (natch), and she's picked on at school (double natch) for not having big breasts. Tracey's in therapy (triple natch) I think over her guilt about losing her younger brother (in one scene, she thinks she glimpses him from a moving bus), but she's so hostile towards her therapist, Dr. Heker (Julian Richings, in drag), that they never discuss it. Dr. Heker's office is an all-white room, reminding one of those Gap ads from the late 90's.

The film has been compared to John Hughes and Peter Greenaway, although it falls short of either filmmaker at their best. Philosophically, Hughes was a humanist in his belief that people are basically decent, and if you put five kids from different cliques in the same room for a few hours, or John Candy and Steve Martin on a cross-country adventure, that they'll grow to understand each other. Tracey, on the other hand, doesn't grow; like Alex (Gabe Nevins), the protagonist of Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park (also 2007), she can only relive her life on instant replay in an attempt to master the past by narrativizing it.

As for Greenaway, although Tracey goes to Mean Girls High with boys who trip her in the hallway with their hockey sticks (one way to tell it's a Canadian film), it would be overrating the film's coherence to call it anti-humanist. Indeed, the film is so subjective it's hard to know whether Tracey's classmates are really that terrible or whether she just thinks they are.

For a movie about a girl tormented by her past--it's the Lola Mont├Ęs (1955) of teen angst--The Tracey Fragments is, ironically, rather forgettable. As in Greenaway's Prospero's Books (1991), McDonald's techniques are often striking on a moment-to-moment basis, but the film as a whole feels strangely disconnected. Scenes don't seem to flow inevitably from one to the next; it's a movie that unfolds in chunks. But where Greenaway simply seems uninterested in Shakespeare except as an opportunity to fiddle around with multiple images, McDonald (like Van Sant) invests all his creative powers in yet another story about hard it is to be a white suburban teenager. One can forgive Tracey for her narcissistic tunnel vision, but when a middle-aged man invites us to share in it for an hour and seventeen minutes, the bubble cries out to be popped. I'm not convinced this film is any more mature than Superbad (also 2007).

As for the strange case of Ellen Page, the overrated poster girl of Canadian cinema, if nothing else, her performance here is a lot less manered than her work in Juno (also 2007).

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