TIFF 2018: Splinters, by David Bax
If you didn’t know beforehand that Thom Fitzgerald’s Splinters was based on a stage play (by Lee-Anne Poole), well, you’d probably be able to guess it. Not only does almost every scene take place in one of two rooms, it also crams multiple major events in its characters lives, from deaths to marriage proposals, into the span of a couple of days. If you’re the type of person given to eye-rolling, you’ll probably do so here. And yet, despite some rough patches, the movie’s pure charm often prevails.
Belle (Sofia Banzhaf) returns home to the Nova Scotia orchard where she grew up for her father’s funeral following his sudden death. Despite a friendly relationship with her brother, Greg (Bailey Maughan), she almost never speaks to her family anymore, mostly because her mother, Pearl (Deb Allen), refuses to accept that Belle is a lesbian. Further complicating things is the unexpected arrival, soon thereafter, of Rob (Callum Dunphy), the heterosexual male boy Belle is now dating. Tensions come to a boil during the funeral preparations and then spill out during the extended post-burial reception scene that makes up the bulk of the movie.
Fitzgerald’s greatest strength is his embrace of gallows humor, something that also buoyed his unfairly panned 2003 film The Event. Belle and Greg’s constant jokes about Belle’s ouster from the family, the death of their comparatively accepting father and any other dark and uncomfortable topic that pops up solidifies their bond and humanizes them while also giving the audience a respite from Splinters‘ otherwise maudlin parade of melodrama.
Banzhaf is the most assured and talented actor in the cast, selling Belle’s mixture of vulnerability with a tendency to lash out hurtfully at people who care about her. Dunphy, on the other hand, is too self-conscious to make Rob seem like a real person. Allen and Maughan are game yet stilted but the occasional awkwardness on the part of those two and many of the other performers at least bears the benefit of adding to Splinters‘ pervasive 90s indie feel (complete with an extended acoustic guitar singalong sequence). Shaggy but sardonically sentimental, the movie would have felt right at home on a Sundance lineup twenty years ago.
Thematically, Splinters stumbles clumsily into accidentally prioritizing Belle’s acceptance of her bigoted mother over any reciprocal lessons learned on Pearl’s part. Still, there’s an occasional profundity in the film’s willingness to recognize that some wounds will never be healed. But that recognition may be all we need to keep going.