Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Tracey Fragments

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Tracey Fragments

The title is quite literal, as this film - the story of a sullen girl in love with the cool new outsider boy, and guilty over the disappearance of her brother, for which her parents blame her - is told in fragments. Not just fragments of narrative, but fragments of the screen, with multiple views popping up and down, left and right, all over our monitor (and this seems a film much more suited for the small screen than the big one, lest its cacophony become overwhelming). This is a risky formal gambit, but surprisingly both story and action remain easy enough to follow, however mixed up the chronology and mise en scene. What's more, the style - while not exactly as expressive of adolescent confusion and mental exhaustion as the authors may hope - does indeed complement the subject and add to the delivery. Unfortunately, none of this can compensate for a perfunctory screenplay; in comparison to its potential, The Tracey Fragments adds up to less than the sum of said fragments.


Tracey (Ellen Page, just pre-Juno) is a fifteen-year-old high schooler. She's angsty, mopey, and self-aware. So self-aware that she knows her angst and mopeyness are teenage cliches - or as she puts it, "Just a normal girl who hates herself." Page plays Tracey with the same straight-ahead commitment she invested in Juno, sullen this time rather than vaguely bemused, but no less talkative. Tracey gets teased at school, called "It" and "No Tits," while at home her parents argue and sulk, only taking a break from their misery to ground her for three months. Her only companion is her little brother, whom she teaches to bark like a dog. When we meet Tracey, she's wrapped in a blanket on a public bus; her brother has vanished and she seems both self-loathing and extremely defensive. We'll learn why as the narrative unfolds, jumping back and forth in time but following a certain logical thread.

The chronological hopscotch gimmick has been a ubiquitous cinematic device since at least Memento (2000) - though narratively fragmented films have been making waves for decades (see Rashomon in 1950 and Citizen Kane in 1941)). Lately, this approach is often tacked-on, to give relevance where none is warranted. In Tracey, the mystery quality of the tale - how did her brother disappear? is she responsible? why is she on a bus? - could for once justify the gimmick. However, for this to work the story would need to be framed more strongly (we may not even realize there is any mystery for a while) and the helter-skelter design of the images would probably have to be subdued. By pursuing fragmentation in script and onscreen, director Bruce Macdonald and writer Maureen Medved may have bitten off more than they could chew. The elements could complement each other, but it would take extreme focus and thematic depth behind the flash, and Tracey Fragments isn't really able to summon either.

Ultimately, when we take a step back and view the film without the interference of style, there isn't enough there to justify the adventurism. Tracey's situation is too cliched - her bullies too stereotypical, her parents underdeveloped, her shrink a cartoon - to warrant much investment. The brother, in whom emotional involvement is crucial for the film's ending to pack a wallop, comes off as too much a symbol of innocence, not enough an embodiment of it (we hardly get to know him at all). It's true that this may be intentional, that Tracey's viewpoint is meant to be flat, one-dimensional, underdeveloped. Yet we need a little something else to give us perspective on her plight - told entirely through her eyes, the ennui and alienation become unimpressive. Still, the film has a very strong climax - literally - in which Tracey's first sexual encounter builds up a romantic head of steam and then lands with a thud, after which she does too. Here the brother's symbolic value as a totem of innocence pays off (though we still wish we had more investment in him as a person).

At any rate, the wintry Toronto locales are often evocative (if underutilized and ill-served by the chopped-up look), the adventurous approach is intriguing, and the film - which really should be just awful, given the indicators (Page's propensity to annoy, the unironic attachment to a teenage perspective, the go-for-broke stylistic fireworks) - is not so bad after all. There are definitely possibilities here, and these fragments could coalesce eventually, if not quite in this particular movie.

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