The Lens: You broke it, you pay for it
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 8, 2008 - Here's the official description of "The Tracey Fragments," which bypassed theaters locally and debuts today on DVD:
"15-year-old Tracy Berkowitz (Ellen Page) is riding around a pre-blizzard urban wasteland on the back of a city bus, naked except for the tattered curtain she's wrapped in, and looking for her missing brother (whom she has hypnotized to think he's a dog)."
People who read that and decide to see "The Tracey Fragments" anyway have only themselves to blame. But what would probably have gone unnoticed as a teen-problem picture with slightly rougher edges than the average "Afterschool Special" has instead been given a much higher profile by virtue of the fortuitous casting of "Juno's" Ellen Page, now a full-fledged "indie" box-office sensation. (Is she the Parker Posey of her time?)
But if "Juno's" aggressive rapid-fire garrulousness left some viewers feeling as though they'd spent 90 minutes being pulled at the lapels by a hyperactive teenager, "Tracey" is in some ways the anti-Juno, sullen, depressed and incommunicative. Not that the filmmakers give her much to talk about.
Director Bruce McDonald, who made "Hardcore Logo" but whose experience with several episodes of "Degrassi: The Next Generation" is probably more relevant here, and writer Maureen Medved, who adapted her own novel, make it obvious from the start that we are in for some kind of Very Big Revelation, but they do such a lazy job of getting around to it that it ends up being more of a mild whimper. They have so much faith in the heavily weighted quirkiness (did I mention that her brother thinks he's a dog?) and stereotypical characters - abusive father, catatonic mother, crush interest whose name, Billy Zero (he's "trouble," get it?), and Adam Ant look would be more suited for a troubled-teen film 25 years ago - that they build the whole film around five to 10 minutes of would-be shocking revelations, not worrying that the remainder of the film is rarely more than tedious.
But that's also because "The Tracey Fragments" is a film with a gimmick: an almost continuous split-screen process described pretentiously and meaninglessly on the film's Website as "Mondrian-like" (evidently a synonym for "lots of little rectangles"). Resurrecting a style much loved by the makers of industrial films and world's fair exhibits in the mid-'60s - and just as heavy-handed now as it was 40 years ago - the film breaks the screen into smaller panels to offer shifts in perspective or draw exaggerated attention to a detail.
The multiple images may be intended to enhance our perception of the agitated Tracey (she's "fragmented," get it?) but instead give the impression that the filmmakers are simply padding the slim narrative (which clocks in at less than 80 minutes nonetheless). It's a showy but ultimately useless "artistic" touch, rarely adding to the film. At times, it's even awkwardly self-important, as when Tracey breaks away from her family and runs out of the house: As Patti Smith's "Horses" fills the soundtrack, the split-screen technique allows the filmmakers to show us images of - can you guess? - running horses! (Get it? Get it? )