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Movie Review

Picking through the pieces of a teen's broken life

Ellen Page plays the title role in Bruce McDonald's cinematic experiment. Ellen Page plays the title role in Bruce McDonald's cinematic experiment. (ThinkFilm)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 27, 2008

It's called "The Tracey Fragments," and it's not kidding. The movie is made of a million little visual and sonic pieces - a lot of which feature Ellen Page - flung onto the screen to play simultaneously. So you can watch a depressed Page walk in distress down a dark, cold Ontario street not once but four times at the same time.

Formally, the effect is like watching really cinematic confetti. Culturally, it suggests that when iThings sleep they dream of Ellen Page. Dramatically, it's like an epic trailer for the most avant-garde After School Special ever. But it's rarely even that convincing.

The gist of the proceedings is that 15-year-old Tracey Berkowitz has got the blues. Her little brother is missing. Her father blames her. Her mother chain-smokes her head off. The kids at school mock her flat chest and her vague androgyny. And she spends an excessive amount of time riding around town on city buses, sometimes wrapped in a curtain talking right to the camera.

While she's doing that, the shards of screen might, in the name of ambience, display a snow globe, a bra, a crow, a tree, treetops, branches, more treetops, a comic strip, baby dolls, action figures, a cake, a clown, or street lamps. None of these images brought me closer to Tracey, but they did make me wonder whether I could use my Mac to remix somebody else's life. This fractured sort of storytelling can work - see Duncan Roy's "AKA," Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation," a few of the films of Steven Soderbergh, or even parts of Mike Figgis's "Timecode." This just isn't one of those times.

The trouble with the film, which opens today at the Brattle, is not the experiment, it's that the director, Bruce McDonald, never settles on an emotional tone. Maureen Medved's screenplay, based on her novel, wallows in TV drama meltdowns (oh the screaming) and a parody of those same emotions (most of the cast appears to be playing cartoons). Every once in a while, a decent idea surfaces, like staging the scenes between Tracey and her transvestite shrink (Julian Richings, who's oddly effective) in a vast white space or putting Page in bright colors and a blond wig that brings out the Warhol in her.

She's playing another of the sort of wryly addled teens that have made her a hero. This one is characteristically snide. ("I don't cry over spilled milk," Tracey says. "I don't even like milk. I'm lactose intolerant.") But, in a new show of actressy hysterics, Page pulls out all the stops. She's an amazing combination: the Bizarro Natalie Wood and the Bizarro Wednesday Addams.

Imagine how much more interesting John Hughes's movies would have been if all those girls were played by her. That would be a real experiment.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/movienation.

The Tracey Fragments

Directed by: Bruce McDonald

Written by: Maureen Medved, adapted from her novel

Starring: Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Max McCabe-Lokos, Erin McMurtry, Slimtwig, and Julian Richings

At: The Brattle Theatre

Running time: 77 minutes

Unrated (teen profanity, teen sex, teen misery)

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