Splinters opens with promisingly evocative text that looks to have been scrawled on the beach of our dreams. Sometime in the 1980s, a pilot left a surfboard behind in a small part of Papua New Guinea called Vanimo Village—a slip of the mind that would prove to take hold of the population’s imagination. It doesn’t take one so long to see why this seemingly meaningless gesture could prove to be so influential. Best known for its cannibalism, with an unemployment rate of somewhere around 87 percent (and the remaining 13 percent not exactly carpooling to high-rise offices in chic and aggressively pointless SUVs), Papua New Guinea is sorely wanting for inexpensive recreation to distract its citizens from the pains, rigors, and simple tedium of extreme and almost literally hopeless poverty.
Splinters is built like a classic sports film, introducing a number of colorful underdogs who hope to use a sport as a means to see and experience the kind of life that’s only been teasingly available to them in magazines. With striking empathy, Pesce captures the day-to-day lives of the aspiring surfers as they contend with illegitimate children, alimony, and rivalries with the competing surfing clubs, all while working toward an unlikely aim. The potential end of that aim turns out to be surprisingly valuable: Placing in the grand tournament, the Papua New Guinea Surfing Titles, nets one an opportunity to surf in Australia, which is clearly seen by these folks as a Promised Land.
Pesce never condescends to any of his subjects, but good intentions alone don’t make for a captivating movie. You grasp this film in your head rather than your heart. It doesn’t entirely draw you into the spiritual space of its subjects; they’re seen from a remove that denies them stature, which forces you to supply your own pre-conceived notions as to what they’re feeling. The issue may lie in the footage of the surfing, which is scarce and lacking in the kind of visual poetry that establishes the peace and fleeting contentment I assume this past time grants these villagers. Pesce never takes the viewer into the stratosphere of these peoples’ dreams—and this film, to be truly effective, needs to contrast the perfection they feel on their board with the chaos they feel everywhere else.