Canadian Bruce McDonald has moved in a new direction, forsaking gonzo humour for multi-image experimentation in this first-person portrait of an angry persecuted teenager that lurches between tactile realism and fantasy. McDonald (Road Kill, Highway 61, Hard Core Logo) will move beyond his core of fans and into a younger crowd with The Tracey Fragments, largely thanks to the defiant and vulnerable Ellen Page in the lead.
Page is already on a roll with critics and other media after the premiere of An American Crime at Sundance, in which she plays a savvy schoolgirl who is punished and eventually murdered.
This new performance will build an international audience for the gifted actress if Page's photogenic gamine look catches eyes at the fashion glossies, as it should. Polite applause at the films premiere, which opened the Berlinale's Panorama section, proves that going for the mainstream with this one could still be a challenge.
McDonald and DP Steve Cosens shot The Tracey Fragments the film on two cameras, and edited it (with Jeremiah Munce and Gareth C. Scales) so that sometimes more than eight images are on the screen at a given moment. The richly-textured effect was inspired by The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, Norman Jewison), McDonald says, in which a crime's planning and execution are dissected formally, and the techniques are a staple of video art that now fills museums, art fairs and art biennials.
Such formal experimentation may seem wasted on the young, or just dizzying, but the youthful public that the film seeks is already familiar with the subdivided screen from graphic novels or from constant advertising in which pictures surround a central image, like a chorus, or just compete for the viewer's attention. (An elegant poster for The Tracey Fragments could be made from freezing any of the film's frames. ) It works for Ellen Page, but without her the approach could risk turning cold.
Multiple images on the screen resolve the dilemma of how to adapt the story's interior monologue for the screen. The Tracey Fragments began as a one-woman stage show, declaimed at punk clubs by its author, Maureen Medved, which may explain why Page's performance seems at times that it's being done for the stage. Medved gathered The Tracey Fragments into a novel in 1998, from which she adapted the screenplay.
The coming-of-age story here is nothing if not fragmentary, but no problem to follow because it's being told by a protagonist who's rarely out of view.
As the film opens, the 15-year old Tracey Berkowitz has hypnotized her brother, Sonny (Zie Souwand) to think that he is a dog, for which her warring parents (Aru Cohen, Erin McMurtry) are punishing her.
At school, Tracey's scruffy look (with long bangs a la Patti Smith, the director says) earns her the bullying of the popular girls. She runs away in wintry Ontario, in part to look for her barking brother, and her adventures spiral into despair and violence, all with dark commentary, much of which Tracey delivers on a moving bus while she's draped in a blanket.
Things are saved from getting too dark, since flashbacks always take us back to a barking eleven year old boy to keep humor in the grim mix. As Tracey's female psychiatrist, Julian Richings in drag also lightens the mood with satire about the dubious value that therapy brings to any young girl's problems. Singer Slim Twig is the brooding high-school hipster, Billy Zero, who turns nasty after the cynical Tracey invests her hopes in him.
Buffalo Gals Pictures
Bavaria Film International
Gareth C Scales
Broken Social Scene