REVIEW: Playground (LFF 2021)
Written and directed by Laura Wandel, Playground is the kind of film I feel could give parents nightmares, or if you were bullied yourself as a child, give you a vivid reminder of your own experiences.
Seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is nervous about starting a new school and wants to cling to her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). But soon she witnesses him being bullied by other children and when Abel forces her to remain silent, Nora is put in a terrible position.
The original title for Playground is “Un monde” or “a world” and it’s easy to see why as school, and the playground especially, is its own little world and social system that children have to learn to navigate. At playtime children have a freedom that’s unlike anything else as there’s far too many children for the teachers to keep track of and to help when needed. At one point when Nora does try and get a teacher’s attention, they’re already busy helping another crying child and only arrives after the bullies have left Abel alone.
The way Playground is shot makes everything feel more intense and almost claustrophobic. The camera is always at Nora’s eye-line, meaning adults are just faceless legs and torsos unless they crouch down to her level, and the older kids loom over her and us as the viewer, making them feel as threatening to us as they do to her. As Nora’s nearly always in the centre of the frame, the echoes of children’s voices are almost constantly surrounding her, and it’s hard to pinpoint those she’s actually starting to form some sort of connection to. The blurred background surrounding Nora demonstrates how chaotic a playground is and it’s easy to see why Nora is so shy and uncertain.
Children can indeed be cruel and Playground shows the different kinds of bullying boys and girls face. While Abel is beaten up and taunted, when Nora struggles it’s because she’s being left out of games or other girls change the rules causing her to lose. Both styles of bullying put the siblings on edge and there’s a sense they’re always looking over their shoulder in case the status quo suddenly changes.
Playground really is some impressive filmmaking. It’s intense and often uncomfortable as it demonstrates the social system of a primary school with more nuance than one might expect. Children can go from the bullied to the bully, friendships break apart and form due to the simplest things, and cruel rumours can travel like wildfire – all while the adults are completely unaware. And even when teachers or parents are told what is happening with the children, can they really help or will it only make things worse? This is the dilemma Nora faces as she watches her brother struggle, but equally she begins to resent him for putting a strain on the few friendships she’s starting to make.
Maya Vanderbeque is an incredible young actress. She is on screen for almost every second of this film and her emotions shine through clear as anything. For the most part it’s a quiet performance, there’s few huge outbursts and instead, when everything gets too much for Nora, the tears come slowly and silently.
Besides its lead performance, Playground’s biggest achievement is its runtime and knowing exactly to how to use it. At just 72 minutes-long, Playground manages to capture the monotony of school, the games children play, finding and losing friends, and all while building tension and pushing the relationship between the siblings to its limit.