“A House Made of Splinters” unfolds at Lysychansk, a facility in Ukraine where parents can drop off children for up to nine months, at which point they’re put into the foster system. The idea is that it’s a place for kids to be while adults deal with things that no child should endure, like alcoholism or abuse. The problem is that these demons often take longer than nine months, and sometimes parents simply don’t return for their kids, succumbing to addiction so badly that it changes their parental status.
The children Wilmont follows are more keenly aware of their situations than you might think. Kids are far more observant than adults believe, and it’s fascinating to hear them cautiously talk here about their home lives and see how they wrestle with homesickness, trauma, and fear. They often lash out at each other, or the adults, especially the boys—one cuts his arm and uses a marker to deface the facility. And Wilmont opens the door to how much situations like this trickle down across generations. “She copies what she saw in her childhood,” says a social worker who speaks of seeing mothers who were children at Lysychansk now dropping off their offspring.
Wilmont is careful not to wallow in misery, pointing out how much joy these children find in their everyday existence. It’s moving when a girl is heartbroken over not being able to reach her alcoholic mother, but there’s something even more powerful about the following scene, in which she plays with bubbles in a hall with her friend. Kids need to be kids. They need to laugh together. They need to smile. Seeing that emerge even during consistent grief is where “Splinters” gets its most strength. And it’s most tragic how play has become an even rarer commodity in the country of Ukraine since the film was shot.