Arts Beat

One Movie, Multiple Bill

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

Before Ellen Page became the Oscar-nominated Ellen Page, she made a little art-house movie called "The Tracey Fragments." Page, who starred in "Juno" last year, played the title character, a tortured 15-year-old who rides city buses through the dreary streets of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in search of her lost little brother. She does this wearing nothing but a shower curtain. "The Tracey Fragments" plays next week in Filmfest DC.

"It is one of those films where everyone will leave the film feeling something different," Page says, via e-mail. "I just hope people go in with an open mind and let go with Tracey on her crazy journey. The film requires an open heart."

The film also requires a viewer's intense focus. Toronto-based filmmaker Bruce McDonald uses a split-screen approach throughout the 77-minute film. Sometimes 10 boxes will be floating around on the screen at the same time, each showing different angles or even completely different scenes. Think comic books, but with the panels unglued. The plot also jumps forward and backward in time.

"Essentially, it is a gimmick," McDonald says. He chose the split-screen look for two reasons: to catch the attention of potential financiers and to capture Tracey's fragmented thought process.

The first part worked. He got the dough from producers, and he now has a distribution deal through ThinkFilm. Whether the device is successful from an artistic standpoint is up for debate.

Vanity Fair: "The kaleidoscopic storytelling furthers his narrative instead of hindering it."

Variety: "The procedure is just plain irritating."

Some of the audience at the Berlin International Film Festival walked out in the first few minutes. Others stayed until the question-and-answer session after the film to tell McDonald that he is a genius.

People also asked McDonald, 48, how he coaxed the intense performance out of his lead actress. Page's character deals with mentally ill parents, rape and guilt (she suspects that her brother ran away because she hypnotized him to think he's a dog). The film, set to music by the band Broken Social Scene, is based on the novel of the same name by Maureen Medved, who also wrote the screenplay.

McDonald, who describes himself as a "passive-aggressive, white Protestant guy uncomfortable sharing my feelings," says that all he did was create a safe space for Page to perform. Some of the director's previous films, such as the offbeat road movies "Roadkill" (1989) and "Highway 61" (1991), inspired cult followings in Canada. McDonald has also directed episodes of the TV show "Queer as Folk."

Page, 21, says the chance to work with dark material is "a gift." Edgy films have defined the actress's career so far. Though Page's role as a sharp-tongued pregnant teen in "Juno" shot her to mainstream stardom, her role in the 2005 film "Hard Candy," about pedophilia, got attention from Canadians and movie buffs.

Page and McDonald shot "The Tracey Fragments" in 14 days, but the film took about nine months to edit. Gareth Scales, one of the three editors, cites artistic influences such as Piet Mondrian's grid paintings and the split-screen sequences in the 1968 film "The Thomas Crown Affair."

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