Laura Wandel’s parable on playground bullying was an award winner at Cannes and now graduates to a full cinema release.
Seven-year-old Nora joins her big brother Abel at 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.
It can be easy to judge the characters for their actions, or inaction, sitting there with the benefit of hindsight. Having grown up much wiser now, decades since we last stepped foot on the playground. However for many people, the content of the drama is likely to trigger some uncomfortable memories. Whether they were the target, the bully or the bystander. It can be said that your school years are the best years of your life but for many, it was or can be a living hell.
It is a film about youth and the moment when that childhood innocence is lost but the way writer-director Wandel portrays it, it feels like a prison movie. Anything goes within the confines of the playground. Teachers turn a blind eye to fighting and bullying. Only the strongest will survive. Similar in many ways to a nature documentary, the film allows the action to unfold without interference or judgement. Merely watching natural selection unfold as the children determine who is at the top of the food chain and who are the weak ones to be picked off from the herd. This is the law of the jungle gym as it were.
The film is presented entirely from the viewpoint of the children. The camera is placed low down at their eye level and rarely strays. It is a technique that has been used in films such as E.T. and Petite Maman. It puts the audience back in the playground where they are just another one of the kids. Saying that however, the cinematographer’s use of focus means that we see everything from Nora’s perspective. Whilst adults are shown out of shot unless they force themselves down to Nora’s level, even the other children are normally out of focus until they become relevant to her. This blurring of the lines can also mean Nora has a limited view of what is really going on. Not to mention there can be a multitude of sins happening off camera.
Maya Vanderbeque is simply astonishing in the role of Nora. She starts off sweet and innocent, unable to hold back the tears as she is dropped off on her first day. We witness her go through an incredible transformation as the story progresses. At one point, she is seen standing on the sidelines with a denim jacket munching on a cracker, surveying the playground. Almost like Ray Winstone in Scum. She has a look in her eyes that says “This is my yard, I’m the daddy now”. She goes from target to bystander to complicit to instigator to remorseful sister all in the period of 72 minutes. It is one of the best child actor performances of the decade.
This is a film that, similar to Eighth Grade, should become required viewing in schools. Providing many teachable lessons for pupils and staff alike.
Ultimately the film’s message seeks to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr. In that “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that”. There will certainly be a lot of love for Laura Wandel’s Playground.
Playground is in UK cinemas from April 22
Director: Laura Wandel
Stars: Maya Vanderbeque, Gunter Duret, Lena Gerard Voss
Runtime: 72 minutes