Written and directed by Laura Wandel.
Starring Maya Vanderbeque and Günter Duret.
When Nora witnesses Abel being bullied by other kids, she rushes to protect him. But Abel forces her to remain silent. Caught in a conflict of loyalty, Nora tries to find her place, torn between children’s and adult’s worlds.
The unique brutality of childhood is something everyone will be familiar with in one way or another; most of us have been fed through the gaping maw of an educational institution and emerged out the other side with traumas which inform our future. Laura Wandel’s stunning directorial debut Playground matter-of-factly elucidates the abject existential horrors of day-to-day survival in the uncaring void of the school system, and the visceral, near-unbreakable bond of a sibling relationship.
Playground opens with a jolting, unforgettable shot of 7-year-old Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) tear-stained face as she prepares for her first day at a new school, heading in alongside her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). Despite Nora’s clear distress, she ultimately acclimates far easier to the new surroundings than her big brother, who encounters pervasive bullying from fellow students. However, he’s neither able to stand up to his bullies nor wishes to have the matter reported, for fear it will only exacerbate the issue.
Wandel’s film, clocking in at a lithe 72 minutes, is a mere snapshot of Nora and Abel’s experiences; there isn’t a wider narrative to speak of, nor do we learn much at all about the kids’ exterior home lives. This is a laser-focused account of what it’s like for children to be thrown into the lion’s den of a new school, in all of its terror and occasional humanity.
The bulk of the film observes the flippant injustices inflicted upon the pair; Nora is mocked for her inability to tie her own shoes, and grilled by more outgoing students about her father not working. As Abel’s bullying eventually manifests signs of deeper trauma – namely wetting himself in the lunch hall – Nora becomes a lightning rod for insensitive declarations from her apparent friends, one telling her with an uncalculated bluntness, “I wouldn’t want a brother like that.”
Abel’s desire to suffer in silence inevitably drives a wedge between brother and sister, as Nora herself is left increasingly isolated alongside him, much to her own frustration. And as is so often the case in reality, the bullied eventually seeks to escape their fate by themselves becoming the bully.
The question of what to do about the universality of schoolground barbarism is a difficult one that the film has no magic answer for, but keenly depicts the multi-faceted means with which those involved try to deal with it. Parents instinctively get defensive though risk only making things worse, while teachers and playground assistants, likely overworked, attempt to control the chaos in addition to their other duties.
As much as Playground is often a highly upsetting document of school life, there are also well-placed slivers of levity and light; something as simple as a fellow student helping Nora learn to tie her shoes is enormously meaningful, as is the mere act of putting an arm around someone to comfort them.
There are also more playfully amusing moments which capture kids in all of their free-flowing imagination; hilariously, there’s the belief among many of the kids that dead former students are buried in the school’s sandpit. But as anyone who has spent much time with children will know, poles of emotion can shift on a dime; in one second, a joyous sandpit fight turns nasty when Nora gets sand thrown in her eye.
Filmmaker Wandel makes the shrewd decision to make Maya Vanderbeque’s face the locus around which everything else revolves; the young actress gives a performance of such lived-in believability as to be genuinely uncomfortable in its intimacy. But there’s not a sour note among the entire ensemble, who were it not for the film’s ultra-polished camerawork would evoke all the authentic pathos of a documentary.
It is also a sterling example of a filmmaker using style to inform the intent and power of their piece; Wandel and DP Frédéric Noirhomme shoot with an extremely shallow depth-of-field at all times, underlining Nora and Abel’s isolation from those around them. But best of all, the camera is always kept at the children’s eye-level, such that adults’ faces – even their own parents – are largely framed out. It’s an elegantly simple stylistic choice but a testament to how motivated camerawork can greatly enhance emotion.
Yet despite the camera’s tendency to linger, there’s scarcely an ounce of fat to be found courtesy of Nicolas Rumpl’s judicious editing, such that its 72 minutes fly by in a zip, ending the very second its point has been made with a sharp cut to black.
A tale as devastating as it is relatable, Playground vividly broaches the crushing anxiety of the school experience for many children, performed with tremendous courage by its young leads while directed with uncommon intelligence and delicacy.
Laura Wandel’s refreshingly lean directorial debut captures the casual cruelty of youth free of sentimental embellishments, aided by a heartbreaking performance from young lead Maya Vanderbeque.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.