Director: Laura Wandel
Stars: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Laura Verlinden
School years are immensely formative in the development of the individual, and not just for the lessoned learned in the classroom. These monitored spaces are also arenas in which we learn social queues, hierarchies and boundaries. Laura Wandel’s intimately-shot Playground intrudes into these spaces with sometimes alarming haste; DoP Frédéric Noirhomme’s handheld work getting in-between kids, almost butting into them as we’re kept tightly within the scrum of recess antics. The ground is rarely seen. Instead we’re often looking up at them as they themselves are dwarfed by their surroundings. Wandel uses this heady approach to foreground the problem of bullying, tackling it from multiple angles.
At the beginning of the film we’re introduced to Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), shy, tomboyish and sensitive on her first day of school. Her brother Abel (Günter Duret) is her senior, but Nora quickly comes to realise that he is the subject of much harassment by his gruff male schoolmates. Unaccustomed to the codes of the schoolyard, Nora tries to intercede, but the teachers are too busy or conveniently uninterested. Abel doesn’t want help from his younger sister, but the bullying continues. Eventually, Nora confesses what she’s seen to their stay-at-home father (Karim Leklou) and the adults get involved.
The freneticism of the playground sequences comes on like overload, tapping into a particular level of scholastic anxiety that may prove quite triggering to those who experienced nervousness and/or bullying while going through their own early years (this reviewer raises a hand). Wandel knows to counter this, however, and such sequences are interspersed with visually calmer, more observational vignettes of everyday activities (swimming, reading aloud, etc.). Through this process of cutting and contrasting, Wandel and editor Nicolas Rumpl create an ebb and flow.
The young, unpracticed leads are impressive, particularly Vanderbeque, who carries much of this slim film. Still, Playground peaks early, and comes to feel like it has exhausted itself after around 40 minutes (little over half it’s trim 72 minute running time). The third act turns the tables considerably, presenting Nora with adversaries of her own, while Abel picks up some bad habits from his experiences that escalate to a level uncomfortably close to shock value. I’m quite sure extreme cases of bullying occur, but the frequency here feels as narratively convenient as the disinterest of the teachers. Playground feels as though it reprimands a difficult profession ever-so slightly. Still, there is balance, and Nora’s teacher Mme Agnès (Laura Verlinden) affords us some thankful moments, too.
Staying head-height with the kids is effective, but it’s not a new trick. Directors as far flung as Abbas Kiarostami, Céline Sciamma and Sean Baker have all had notable successes with this tactic in the past. Wandel can’t rely on it to be the sole driving force of her film. Add to that an almost perpetually raucous soundtrack of children’s clatter and shrieks and Playground is as likely to get under your skin because of how unpleasant it.
Credit to Playground for acknowledging how difficult such situations can be to marshal, and for allowing it’s child actors to exist and breathe in the skins of their characters. There are moments of joy here within the mass of histrionics (a game involving sandwiches, particularly). One is left pondering, however, how easy it’s cut-to-black finale is. After all the hard work digging into the psychology of these children (during bullying and in the aftermath), hugging it out feels like a solution of greetings card simplicity.
Still, for all it’s rough-and-tumble ungainliness, Playground is abrasive, adventurous cinema. An endeavour that bravely lives or dies on the shoulders of it’s incredibly young players. For that, you have to admire the gumption of all involved, and there’s plenty of good here among the skinned knees and hurt feelings.