THE STORY – Seven-year-old Nora and her big brother Abel are back to school. When Nora witnesses Abel being bullied by other kids, she rushes to protect him by warning their father. But Abel forces her to remain silent.
THE CAST – Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Karim Leklou & Laura Verlinden
THE TEAM – Laura Wandel (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 72 Minutes
By Daniel Howat
Are you looking to relive the worst days of your childhood? Are you hoping to experience the agony of school bullies? Want to be transported back to your worst insecurities of adolescence? Look no further than “Playground.”
Even if childhood wasn’t all bad, we all remember when we got made fun of at school or when some jerk pushed us around or made us cry. With the benefit of years of hindsight, sometimes those moments can be explained away or aren’t quite so bad. But at the time, all of those moments made life feel too big to handle. “Playground” puts us right in the world of a young girl, making all of her pain, anger, and anxiety feel undeniably real. It’s an effective, tragic, and anger-inducing experience, all in a brisk 72 minutes. This debut feature from director Laura Wandel may be a drama about children playing on a playground at school, but it’s one of the most gripping thrillers of 2021.
“Playground” opens with a tight closeup of seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) weeping and hugging her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) outside their school. She doesn’t want them to go in, clearly terrified of what a school day will bring. We soon discover that Nora is full of anxiety because Abel is relentlessly, and often violently, bullied every day. She often tries to help, but her attempts at standing up for Abel make things worse. This anxiety cripples her, making her lose focus on school, ignore her friends, and break down.
Brilliant visual storytelling throughout “Playground” puts us right in Nora’s viewpoint and never lets us go. The entire film is shot at Nora’s eye level from beginning to end. Even when she’s talking to bigger kids or adults, we never even pan up to reveal their faces unless they bend down to get on her level. This adjustment seems simple, but it’s somewhat shocking how much it helps place the viewer inside her world. You don’t realize the distance that most movies put between the camera and children until you see something like this.
Similarly, we never once leave the school. Though several days pass, we never witness these children at home or elsewhere. These two elements make the film feel claustrophobic. Nora can’t leave her anxiety behind, and we don’t get to either.
There are moments of reprieve. Nora has friends at school that she can play with. They even help her learn to tie her shoes. There’s also the one empathetic teacher we all wish we had, though she’s essentially helpless to change Nora’s situation. Ultimately, this is a lonely girl watching her brother careen out of control, and her life is crashing down with him.
“Playground” accomplishes quite a bit in its short runtime. No space is wasted, as unsparingly effective editing cuts from one day to the next without any fluff. Like Nora, we’re hyper-focused on the pain and struggle of her brother, and nothing can take our eyes off of that. This movie flies by, mercifully not making us dwell in this pain longer than needed.
It’s a painful watch, but “Playground” captures childhood anxiety with a unique ruthlessness and honestly. While most of our elementary experiences weren’t quite this horrible, this isn’t an unrealistic scenario. A film like this highlights the profound lack of empathy for children that we as adults can have. It’s easy to forget how formative the playground days are for kids and how easily children can be broken. “Playground” is hard to recommend, as it may bring childhood anxieties flooding back. Still, this is an astounding debut from Wandel, breathtaking, bold, and incisive.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Brilliant direction places the viewer right in the world of an anxious young girl and her bullied brother. It’s intense and unflinching, making every moment of school feel like a horror movie.
THE BAD – It’s single-minded, which makes it effective but slim. Some viewers may find it difficult to watch as it could trigger memories of bullies or anxiety from school.