One of the best things about Cannes is the randomness of what's playing in the marketplace, the bustling buzz of smaller screenings where distributors look for films and vice-versa; a great demonstration of that came on Thursday. Just the week before I had been watching a DVD copy of Bruce McDonald's Highway 61 and wondering if McDonald had anything new in the works, and there it was in the Market schedule: Palais 1, 1300: The Tracey Fragments, dir. Bruce McDonald.
Staring Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men III), The Tracey Fragments tells the story of 15-year old Tracey Berkowitz. We first meet Tracey at the back of a city bus, wearing nothing but a shower curtain; she tells us how she got there, a tale involving Tracey's friendship with a local loser (Max McCabe-Lokos), her crush on the new cool boy in school Billy Zero (Slim Twig) and the disappearance of her little brother Sonny. Tracey's story skips all over the place, and so does the film; every shot in The Tracey Fragments is made up of multiple panels -- now and then ordered in geometric precision, occasionally as random and shattered as Tracey's thoughts and life.
It's a bold technique, and it works -- The Tracey Fragments is based on a novel by Maureen Medved, who also wrote the script, but the finished product is far more visual than literary. As Tracey races through the barren, blasted plains of Canadian suburbia, a cover of Patti Smith's "Horses" plays on the soundtrack; images are stutter-cut into the framework of the film that bring the tone of the scene and the song to thrilling life.
But the film isn't just a showcase for visual play, either; Page's performance is the centerpiece of the film, and her portrait of Tracey's emotional state -- cautious, callow, bold and scared -- leaps out of the screen. There's always been something a little flinty about Page as an actress -- an intimation flashing out from narrowed eyes that whatever life has for her, she can take it -- and this performance, laden with rough stuff, is a perfect fit for her. Tracey's going through some tough stuff, but much of it is her own fault - and Page's performance suggests that wounded guilt superbly. (I wish Page had more screen time in X-Men III, if only because watching her walk through walls made a nice change from watching her in films where she goes through hell.)
The score -- by hip Canadian alt-prog-rock combo Broken Social Scene, who also wrote the score for Half Nelson -- is excellent, and the cast uniformly fine; still, The Tracey Fragments is a tour de force for both Page and McDonald. A scene where Tracey finally gets to be with Billy dissolves into stately panels of idealized affection and desire; then the movie snaps back to the raw, backseat, vinyl car-seat-clutching reality of what's happening, and that shift and break, coupled with the light in Page's eyes, tears you heart out.
Occasionally, in depicting Tracey's life, The Tracey Fragments doesn't quite make sense; what redeems that is the clearly-conveyed fact that Tracey's life doesn't always make sense to her, either. The Tracey Fragments is shiveringly real and still sympathetic; between the quality of Page's performance and the bold, striking visual motifs of the film, it leaves you hoping that it finds an audience daring enough to watch an exciting experiment in visual storytelling and tough enough to deal with the kind of teen trouble and crisis that happens everyday.