Pieces of Ellen

Running time 77 minutes
Written by Maureen Medved
Directed by Bruce McDonald
Starring Ellen Page, Ari Cohen, Zie Souwand

Bruce McDonald’s The Tracey Fragments, from Maureen Medved’s screenplay, based on her novel, is much too fragmented for any emotions to emerge unscathed by the film’s excessive experimentation with time and space. But again, a virtuoso performance by Ellen Page as Tracey Berkowitz, a terminally troubled 15-year-old, gives the film a semblance of recognizable humanity in a sea of split-screen, rectangular abstractions in all sizes.

From what I could piece together, Tracey was beset with a father (Ari Cohen) who is always hectoring her, along with his brow-beaten wife (Erin McMurtry) and his apparently autistic son, Sonny (Zie Souwand), who keeps barking like a dog as his only form of communication. Mr. Berkowitz wants someone, anyone, in the family to tell him why Sonny is barking like a dog.

Meanwhile, Tracey is being hazed by other girls in the school for not having “tits.” And I am not sure that I understood these episodes correctly, since the different rectangles in the frame are not always chronologically consistent, supposedly because Tracey’s memory mechanism darts back and forth all the time.

Besides, there is little community ambiance in the film to speak of, and there is a dire shortage of authority figures aside from Mr. Berkowitz. Tracey ruminates about having a crush on a fellow student, Billy Zero (Slim Twig), who rides a motorcycle to school and keeps to himself, at least at first. Later, after he has had sex with Tracey in a car, he throws her out with her panties around her legs, and later taunts her in concert with the other guys. And this is after she has delivered soliloquies on their great love for each other.

Tracey responds to this and other setbacks by retreating into a fantasy world of her own while she looks frantically to find her little brother, Sonny, who has disappeared into the snowy wilderness that is Tracey’s slice of Canada. After she fights off a rape and ends up alone on an empty bus, wrapped only in a shower curtain, the film ends with a prolonged full frame shot of Tracey in her shower curtain, walking fiercely to who knows where.

The film’s production notes confirm the strong feeling I had that much more time was spent on the editing and reframing than on the actual shooting. The effect for me was that this 77-minute film seemed much longer than it is; it displays a graphic complexity by simply multiplying the number of discrete compositions, often of the various parts of the same body.

You have probably seen modified versions of The Tracey Fragments before in recent movies; television shows like 24; and innumerable MTV videos. As Mr. McDonald recalls his research for the film: “I called [cinematographer] Steve Cosens, who I’d met on an American TV series. We’d had a great time working together, so great in fact that it got me fired for our visual audacity, which had freaked out the network. Steve, [editor] Jeremy Munce, [producer] Sarah Timmons and I along with our designer Ingrid Jurek watched all the split screen movies we could, The Thomas Crown Affair, The Boston Strangler, the new Beastie Boys concert movie, and a video about crumping that Stevie brought in. We poured over photographs, and paintings and listened to Horses—the Patti Smith album. We used our great casting directors to secure some of the best acting talent in the land. The team was ready!”

Besides Mr. McDonald and Ms. Medved, the other indispensable members of the production included producer Ms. Timmins; executive producer Paul Barkin; editors Mr. Munce and Gareth C. Scales; casting directors Sara Kay and Jenny Lewis; production designer Ms. Jurek; and a musical score provided by Broken Social Scene, a Toronto indie rock band.

Unfortunately, the net result of all this punkish avant-garde audacity, including Julian Richings as Tracey’s transvestite psychiatrist, is to demonstrate yet again that with experimental shattering of conventions, more is less. Still, Ellen Page remains one of the few stellar newcomers who deserves to be seen in anything she chooses to do.

Pieces of Ellen