Life in a French primary school is a trauma to be endured in Laura Wandel’s gut-punch debut
Dir/scr: Laura Wandel. Belgium. 2021. 72mins
A gut-punch of a film that is not so much a portrait of schoolyard bullying as it is a sensory immersion straight into the heart of children abusing other children physically and emotionally, Playground is a sit-up-and-take-notice blend of outstandingly natural performances enhanced by spot-on cinematic choices. Told almost entirely from the height of its young protagonists, the film plunges viewers into a world (the film’s original French title is ‘Un Monde’) of seemingly unavoidable unease, grabbing us from the first frame and rarely letting up its relentless focus on stoic suffering vs daring to upset the status quo. Tough subject matter sensitively handled in this Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere distinguishes Belgian newcomer Laura Wandel as as a talent to watch.
Grabs us from the first frame and rarely lets up
Two youngsters, seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret), are reluctant to leave their father (Karim Leklou) in order to enter their primary school. Abel assures the semi-terrified Nora that everything will be alright. Dad is willing to walk Nora right up to the door but an unseen staffer’s voice tells him parents are not permitted to do that. He’s a caring dad but, once school is in session, he’s powerless to imagine, let alone buffer, the arbitrary cruelty afoot in this building and its playground.
Nora hates being there and wants to continue to hang out with her brother in the lunchroom or during recreation breaks outdoors. Interestingly, hardly any of the scenes depict classroom learning; school is primarily a sequence of mini-ordeals to be navigated and endured, be it in the lunchroom, the pool or on the playground.
Fifteen minutes of screen time representing several days elapse before we see sulky Nora smile; she has finally acquired a few girlfriends to play with and feels good about belonging. They bite their sandwiches into funny shapes and challenge the others to guess what the bread outline is meant to be. Then Nora glimpses some of the older boys viciously dunking somebody’s head in a toilet. The victim is her brother.
There’s a code of non-snitching that resembles what movies have taught us about life in prison. When does alerting the authorities improve a situation and when does it make things worse? The grown-ups are well-meaning but much of what is going on right in front of their eyes remains unseen. Some school workers are just trying to maintain order, others try to provide individual attention.
As Abel fails to defend himself — in fairness, he’s outnumbered and his enemies are truly frightening — Nora’s unconditional respect for her brother begins to fray. When another girl implies that Nora’s stay-at-home dad is a parasitic loser because he doesn’t have a “real’ job, Nora suddenly expresses doubts about her Dad’s place in the world. She’s no longer sure how to relate to the most important males in her young life.
The film lasts just 72 minutes but that’s enough time to show how people who are mistreated may well turn to harming others, just to have some semblance of control. The implications are truly unnerving. And unless you went to school in a monastery with a code of silence the sound design here will stir up memories. The noise of the playground and hubbub in the halls rings absolutely true.
Production Companies: Dragons Films, Lunanime
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Producer: Stéphane Lhoest
Production design: Philippe Bertin
Editor: Nicolas Rumpl
Cinematography: Frédéric Noirhomme
Main cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Karim Leklou