The Belgian movie “Playground” (originally titled ‘A World’), is a modern masterpiece of filmmaking on a variety of levels. It is not only a cinematic tour de force of direction and cinematography, child acting and script, but a look into the world of schoolyard bullying that many people have experienced but few filmmakers have been able to put to the screen in such a powerful way.
The story is about two young siblings, an older boy, Abel, played by Günther , and his 7-year-old sister Nora, played by Maya Vanderbeque. Nora is starting her first year in school, while Abel is perhaps a year or two ahead. Nora is struggling with the usual fears of starting school, creating new friends, learning to swim, finding her place on the playground, being surrounded by new rules, while Abel is struggling with being viciously bullied by other kids. Nora witnesses the bullying and wants to help him but simply doesn’t have the understanding at her age of how. The adults seem unable to help either child, nor to fully understand the issues due to the childhood code of not telling on another for fear of violence or being ostracized. We are led through the film’s fast paced 72 minutes deeper into the struggles of Nora to help her brother while he becomes more lonely and violent. The line between Abel at this age and the all too common events like Columbine seems sadly clear.
Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme places the floating camera at the eye level of Nora for the entire film. Using shallow depth of field, we see the world of Nora up close and centered around her, her actions, her brother, her friends and her apparently unemployed father, whose presence is both a balm and an annoyance to the children. The impact of this camera perspective is that you feel as if you are living this as a child. It captures moments of childhood that virtually any of us will relate to, learning to tie a shoelace or swim, while also experiencing helplessness and anger.
The second directorial choice is to never leave the playground and school. Combining this with the close tight shots from Nora’s point of view, along with the monochrome color palette of pale blues, browns, greens and concrete, gives a slightly claustrophobic feel that, as the tension mounts, draws you deeper into the action. The outcome of these elements is mesmerizing.
First time director Laura Wandel has done a masterful job of storytelling and directing these amazing young actors. The children are so real that you find yourself thinking it’s a documentary, not a theatrical film.
The flip side of this film is the implications for the community of educators and social support people. As a member of the foster support community here on the Olympic Peninsula, the current focus is often around the school being a ‘safe place’ for children experiencing trauma at home. The teaching of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and other similar disciplines tends to teach more about the emotional issues suffered due to the stresses of home life and the intersection of alcohol and drug abuse, neglect, anger management issues and more. Playground moves the focus on the trauma to the school. The raw child to child violence that director Wandel brings to the screen, along with the lack of effective oversight by the school, a lack of understanding of what is happening under their supervision, is another shock of the film. In the end, it highlights the need of much greater understanding of school bullying and how to deal with it. While the school seems to be adhering to some kind of discipline for bullying, the inadequacy of their methods and oversight is all too clear. The nameless school and staff, shown faceless and usually from the knees down, rather than appearing to help the children, does not seem to truly get to the core of the issue. The kindness shown by one specific teacher is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film, driving home the effect of one caring adult, and director Wandel offers a simple acting movement change to highlight it. It is easy to ask whether these children, and others like them, are better off at school than remaining at home with their father? The movie, like reality itself, offers no simple answer to that question.
With a short running time, and a powerful message this film should be on your list to view. Though it is a harsh, realistic drama, it is incredibly moving and important. You will likely have much to discuss afterwards, but from the opening scene on you are swept into the Playground and it’s world of children fighting for acceptance and love.
5 stars out of 5.
Streaming now on Amazon Prime. Hopefully will be in theaters sometime this year. Trailer for Playground at the link below.