When directors normally adapt stage plays for the screen, they try to feature ill fitting cinematic moments that couldn’t be replicated in the source material, in order to escape the criticism that these dialogue heavy films feel “stagey”. Director Thom Fitzgerald, adapting Lee-Anne Poole’s play, isn’t concerned by this criticism – he’s gone on the record to claim that every aesthetic choice he made behind the camera was to preserve the play’s “literary roots”. Even when filming in the heart of beautiful Nova Scotia countryside, Fitzgerald wanted to maintain a tight focus on his actors, creating the same level of intimacy on screen that you would have encountered in the original production.
Most directors feel the need to overcompensate their material with cinematic flourishes, but Fitzgerald’s stripped down and intimate approach to the drama is far more rewarding. Splinters is a simple, quietly affecting family drama told in a humble manner; an authentic portrayal of an estranged family, where both the funny and moving moments come from the everyday. There’s no out of the ordinary dramatic twists here – and the film is all the better for it.
Belle (Sofia Banzhaf) returns to her rural Nova Scotia home for her father’s funeral. She came out as a lesbian to her mother (Shelley Thompson) back in her teenage years, but is now trying to keep an even bigger secret from her – she’s been in a relationship with Rob (Callum Dunphy) for the past two years. The fraught relationship between mother and daughter continues to simmer over the course of the funeral period, as Belle struggles to hide her relationship from a woman she still has a disdain for thanks to all the drama years earlier, as well as facing meeting an ex she was previously engaged to and hasn’t seen in years.
The premise is ripe for an overblown, melodramatic treatment; with old wounds ready to resurface, and the extended family all to be found in the claustrophobic environment of the funeral, you’d be forgiven for expecting that shit will naturally hit the fan. Fitzgerald never feels the need to go down such an obvious route. His film isn’t exactly subtle (after all, one of the broadest moments highlighting the disparity in the family dynamic comes via a dog urinating on a coffin), but it avoids forfeiting realism for the sake of a cheap and overly familiar dramatic payoff. There’s no satisfying breakthrough in the mother/daughter relationship here, no cathartic event that would trigger mutual understanding.
And this is before you factor in her fluid sexuality; her desire to hide her current relationship with a partner of the opposite sex to simultaneously remain at odds with her mother and not have to be burdened by labelling her sexual identity. Heading back to the village where she grew up only amplifies her confusion, seeing her ex has settled down to a happy family life while she has spent the past couple of years dating somebody she seems to have grown drastically apart from. Her behaviour isn’t reckless, but it is impulsive – a step below crying for help at the direction her life has taken, and how this is at odds with how she’s still perceived by her family. Belle’s relationship with her brother (Bailey Maughan) is the only one that doesn’t feel fractured, and that’s largely because it’s still rooted in adolescence, avoiding confronting how their lives have changed over the years.
One of the quieter gems of this year’s BFI Flare, Splinters takes a melodramatic premise and brings it down to earth.