playground review

Playground depicts the deeply troubling cruelty of children

In her incredible debut feature, Belgian filmmaker Laura Wandel immerses the viewer in what happens at schools when adults aren’t paying attention.

With Playground, director Laura Wandel’s feature debut, she brings the camera eyeline low to the ground. Her film is about what happens at schools when adults aren’t paying attention: taunting, bullying and violence. Seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) begins her first day at a new school. Her father reassures her that if anything goes wrong, she can turn to her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). She soon discovers that her brother is being viciously and brutally bullied.

Running at just 72 minutes, Playground has the viewer balancing on a razor’s edge. The camera work is immersive and claustrophobic. The sound feels piercing and chaotic. From the moment Nora steps foot into the schoolyard, we’re on edge. The unpredictable cruelty of children hangs around the edges of the frame. Designed almost like a horror movie, we’re pulled into Nora’s subjectivity from the onset and the moral compromises she has to navigate. 

Nora’s first days are challenging, but she quickly settles in. Her brother shields her from the viciousness of other kids by putting his body on the line. It quickly becomes clear that the adults aren’t equipped to handle any prospective violence. While Nora reaches out for help early on, it becomes abundantly clear that the interference from adults will only result in more punishing treatment for her older brother.

As the movie goes on, Nora becomes more assured. She finds a friend group, and she seems to escape from the shadow of the “new kid” moniker. Her brother, however, fares worse and worse. Nora grows comfortable with her new social standing and increasingly turns her back on her brother. She goes from helpless to contemptuous of his weakness as she follows the lead of her peers in ostracizing him, creating a moral shift in the siblings’ dynamic. 

There’s that old showbiz adage that you should never work with kids, but Wandel navigates the world of children deftly. Her two leads, Maya Vanderbeque and Günter Duret (acting in their first film) channel naturalism and pathos. Their spontaneity and freedom to move and perform is apparent on the screen; it’s often difficult to believe they’re acting. Wandel auditioned over 200 girls before casting Maya and worked with both young actors for three months to get her desired results

Rather than creating a version of childhood that feels symbolic or merely a reflection of adult ideas, the movie feels deeply immersed in the world of childhood. Characters are not particularly good at expressing themselves with words and often turn inward when confronted with hardship or difficulty. The low camera, an inspired choice, brings us literally to their level. 

The film understands the importance and negotiations of space integral to the lives of children. The camera’s close proximity to the action often captures the small nuances that separate play from punishment. The children work hard to maintain small routines oriented around space, sitting at the same table at lunch, finding corners of the playground out of view of supervisors. The film understands the power of controlling specific spaces and the dangers of transgressing them. The film brims with unwritten rules of conduct that can shape a child’s reputation or frame them as outsiders. 

The film’s original title, Un Monde, which translates more directly to “A World,” evokes a more profound unease than Playground. It extends the film’s reach beyond the troubles of youth, drawing parallels to the goings-on in the playground with the way we interact as adults and even more broadly as nations. While the movie doesn’t pontificate too deeply on this point, it echoes through the entire experience. Some people never escape the random cruelties of youth. 

Playground was Belgium’s choice for Best International Feature Film. Though it didn’t make the final five, it’s easily one of last year’s most dynamic International feature choices. It’s a deeply troubling film that recaptures the cruellest moments of youth through performance and aesthetics. Laura Wandel is a talent to watch. I’m excited to see whatever she does next. ■

Playground, directed by Laura Wandel

Playground is currently screening in Montreal theatres.

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