Since the advent of cinema, the practice of film-watching has typically gone something like this: the audience shuffles into the theater; murmurs before the lights go down; sits more or less passively as the feature plays; and then scurries out of the auditorium into blinding daylight. Understandably, many provocateurs have tried to fuck with the way we experience films. These challenges range from the non-linear dreams of Dali and Buñuel in Un Chien Andalou to the kitschy midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show where audiences dress up and become part of the action by acting out the onscreen melodrama and singing along.
In The Tracey Fragments, a film that follows angsty 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz (played by Juno's Ellen Page), director Bruce McDonald rattles the ideas of conventional cinema even further by sprinkling the screen with fragments of Tracey’s life -- literally. Panels of different size and shape materialize across the screen, appearing, skating, blurring, and vanishing at will. Plot obviously comes second to this fragmented view that aims to convey the uncertainty and anger that follows from being a teenager whose life is nothing more than a network of alien feelings and uncaring adults.
McDonald doesn’t pull any punches in setting the scene: "My name is Tracey Berkowitz. Fifteen. Just a normal girl who hates herself.” Almost like a mantra, Page’s words permeate the surface of this experimental foray into a wounded teenager’s psychology. With a lot of confusion and a lot of screaming, it's quickly established that Tracey comes from an unhappy family. Her younger brother, whose disappearance exacerbates Tracey’s already guilty nature, seems to be autistic and acts like a dog. Tracey finds no solace at school, either, where she is bullied for not having “tits” and is called “it” by her classmates.
As the fragments of Tracey appear and move about the screen, it is difficult to tell which are reality and which are fantasy. When she muses on the undying love of classmate Billy Zero (Slim Twig), we assume that this is the union of two misfits who finally found one another. It isn’t until the end of the film when we discover her only interaction with Billy has been an impromptu fuck in his car. Soon after their coupling, he pushes her into the road, her jeans still around her ankles. As the car sputters away, McDonald cuts to a leaking tailpipe, the not-so-subtle phallic stand-in for what transpired between Tracey and Billy.
It is through uniting these fragments that McDonald wants us to discover the whole Tracey. While there are magnificent moments within each section that highlights subtle details (a therapy session in which a small box focuses on a twitching foot, a drumming finger), a lot of the scenes feel familiar. Tracey’s torment at the hands of her classmates, as well as her disaffected mother and enraged father, and her narrow escape from rape at the hands of some underworld types, don't feel new or relevant. Meanwhile, great lines are overshadowed by sophomoric ones such as: “He stuck his cock in me and said ‘I love you.’ In that exact order. Now I’m not afraid to die. ‘Cause like birds and bees and bugs, they all die after they fuck. ”
Filmed in just 14 days, but edited over nine months, the movie obviously devotes more energy to its own technical construction than it does to the narrative arc. Rather than overthinking his editing, McDonald could have focused on his film’s biggest asset: the acting of Ellen Page. As she did in Hard Candy and Juno, Page shows us that she is capable of handling complex characters. While McDonald’s innovative structure makes up for the lack of story, it is Page’s harrowing performance that really shines here. But her talent also works to the film’s detriment, as it painfully highlights just how bad the rest of the acting in the film is. The Tracey Fragments, in the end, is just too inconsistent.