DVD Review: The Tracey Fragments
“My name is Tracey Berkowitz, 15. Just a normal girl who hates herself.”
The Tracey Fragments is a weird little Canadian indie movie from director Bruce McDonald and starring Canadian Oscar nominee Ellen Page. Not that Canada produces the equivalent of big studio movies, but there’s also a clear indie aesthetic at play here. (Also, even if she fades into obscurity, Page will be referred to in Canada as “Canadian Oscar nominee Ellen Page” until the end of time; we Canadians are insecure like that.)
The film is based on a novel by Maureen Medved, who also penned the screenplay. It opens with 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz sitting on the bus, naked except for a shower curtain. Exactly how she got there and what happened to her is the story of the film. It’s an incredibly effective premise, in that Tracey’s situation (I won’t say “predicament” because she seems incredibly calm and unfazed considering she’s a 15-year-old girl riding a city bus at night wearing only a shower curtain) immediately made me eager to find out just what happened. (The plot involves her desperately searching for her kid brother, who’s been missing for a few days after she hypnotized him into thinking he was a dog.) While the concept of starting a movie in a compellingly strange place in the story and building the film around the after-the-fact explanation isn’t a new concept, McDonald does a lot of interesting things with it.
Bruce McDonald, by the way, directed one of my all-time favourite movies, an awesome little 1996 rock and roll movie called Hard Core Logo, about a fictional semi-obscure Canadian punk band reuniting for a tour across the country playing dive bars and scummy clubs. It stars musician-turned-actor Hugh Dillon in what I believe was his first acting role (he absolutely destroys it; he’s since carved out a nice little career for himself as a character actor, and can currently be seen in the Canadian-produced left-field hit cop drama Flashpoint, not to be confused with the awesome kung fu movie Flash Point – my review of which is here) and character actor Callum Keith Rennie (probably best known now as the tricky blond Cylon Leoben on Battlestar Galactica). Hard Core Logo doesn’t have a whole lot to do with The Tracey Fragments, but I had to mention it just because it’s a great movie. I’m not sure what its DVD status is at this point – I got a copy from a Canadian DVD company when it was reissued several years ago – but if you’re into music movies, Hard Core Logo comes with my highest possible recommendation.
Anyway, back to The Tracey Fragments. McDonald was apparently inspired by the title to craft a very unique film, breaking the screen up into literal fragments to show different angles of scenes (both literally and figuratively). Medved says on the DVD that her book was very subjective, being written from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, and McDonald’s vision does a great job of capturing the unreliable narrator aspect of the text. Some of the scenes show Tracey’s gritty reality, while others are clearly fantasy, and many more exist somewhere in between. Typically I get annoyed when a movie plays fast and loose with what’s really happening and what isn’t, but I thought the technique worked well in The Tracey Fragments. And while I certainly won’t spoil any plot twists, I will say that McDonald never leaves any of the important stuff ambiguous. I have a soft spot for movies that seem impenetrable at first but reward the viewer for actually paying attention (see also: David Mamet’s Spartan, a movie I will fawn over in a future post), and while I’ve read that some people found McDonald’s visual style here hard to follow, I had no problems comprehending the events on the screen.
McDonald also pulls out some more traditional (and fun) filmmaking tricks, like including a brilliant fake-opening-credits sequence for the movie about Tracey’s life that plays in her head (including credits for “F***head Bully #1 and #2,” “Some Crazy Lady” and “That Knockout Bitch Debbie Dodge”). Tracey’s the victim of much taunting in school, and lives a vivid fantasy life as a result. When a cute new boy starts school, she imagines him riding a motorcycle through the halls, cigarette dangling from his lips, as he rescues her from her classroom tormentors. I haven’t been a teenager for a decade now, but high school life portrayed in The Tracey Fragments feels a lot closer to the angst and the weird, unfocused anguish of adolescence than any so-called “teen” movie I can recall seeing any time recently, but maybe that says more about me than it does about movies. Not for me to judge, I guess.
But the visual flourishes are nothing compared to the real draw of The Tracey Fragments, and that’s Ellen Page’s amazing performance. Page is, hands down, the best young actress out there right now, and her work in The Tracey Fragments is something to behold. Tracey's the sort of complex female character we don’t see enough in movies; rather than being a one-note “tough girl” or tomboy or an embittered geek, she’s simultaneously cynical and strangely naïve. It’s a hell of a tricky tightrope to walk, but Page pulls if off with the gusto of a seasoned vet. Not that I’m the first person to say this, but Page definitely looks to be one of those once-in-a-generation talents, and this (along with Hard Candy – rent it if you dare) is the best work I’ve seen her do.
The Tracey Fragments had me pinned to my couch, and at no point during its wonderfully economical 77-minute running time did I have the slightest idea what was going to happen next. And for a movie like this, that’s the highest compliment I could pay it.
The Tracey Fragments DVD is pretty spare – a commentary from McDonald and/or Page (the latter, I assume, would be a bit of a challenge, as Page’s stock has risen quite a bit since this film was completed thanks to Juno) would have been a nice touch. There’s a brief making-of featurette that runs less than 10 minutes and boasts on-set interviews with McDonald, Page and others, but it’s not long enough to really get into any detail about the film. Which is a shame, because it’s the kind of movie that really would benefit from some more in-depth bonus features.
The only other extra (aside from a photo gallery) is an interesting item called ‘Tracey: Re-Fragmented.’ To promote the film, McDonald and company released digital files of various scenes from the movie on the web for users to play around with to make their own short films or trailers. Five are included, and the winner’s trailer is actually considerably better than the film’s official trailer (which is also included). It’s a cool little feature to include on the DVD, reminiscent of a similar short-film contest on the Diary of the Dead DVD (read my review here). Overall it’s a pretty sparse disc, but The Tracey Fragments is recommended nonetheless. Sometimes a good movie’s enough.
Labels: Bruce McDonald, Canadian cinema, DVD review