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27 April 2022

Laura Wandel’s Playground is a study on the cruelty of children

The writer-director's first full-length film takes a close look at bullying in a Belgian primary school.

By Ryan Gilbey

Won’t somebody think of the children? The ones who were thrilled to be cast in Playground, that is, only to find themselves reduced to a half-glimpsed face, a passing blur, or one of the innumerable voices in the off-screen clamour that takes the place of a score. The writer-director Laura Wandel restricts the action of her first full-length film to a Belgian primary school (the original title is Un Monde) and keeps just two characters consistently in focus: a brother and sister whose struggle to comprehend school-yard lawlessness forms the bruised heart of the drama.

In the tradition of Wandel’s esteemed countrymen the Dardenne brothers, her handheld camera sticks closer to the youngsters than their own shadows. It also never rises higher than their sight-lines. In ET the Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg shunted most of the adults out of the frame, though the function of his child’s-eye view was more benign. He was preserving a mood of enchantment and secrecy, whereas the tone Wandel achieves is closer to Play, Ruben Östlund’s tale of sophisticated psychological bullying among Swedish adolescents.

The adults in Playground are often rash, ineffectual or distracted, leaving the children to improvise their own moral codes. That’s the case for seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), who clings tearfully to her older brother (Günter Duret) at the start of her first day at school. He is named Abel, which gives fair warning this story won’t end in a round of pat-a-cake.

She tries to tag along with him at lunchtime but he shoos her away: “We’re beating up the new kids,” he hisses. This pale, weedy boy has become a stooge for older bullies, but when one of them provokes his natural protectiveness towards Nora, Abel’s status flips in an instant from sidekick to target. Collected by their father at the school gates that afternoon, he explains away his bruises with a story about a footballing injury. Then he glances at Nora, trapping her in the lie.

[See also: How Nicolas Cage embraced self-parody]

What to do? When she does squeal to teachers, her intervention only earns Abel a worse thrashing from his tormentors. Keeping his suffering to herself, though, has a contaminating effect, as Vanderbeque’s eerily mature performance makes transparent; whenever this fresh-eyed poppet is in distress, she has a face like a smashed plate. To say Nora carries the weight of the world on her shoulders would be an understatement. Her rucksack is illustrated with the planets of the solar system: she is lugging the universe around on her back.

The film patiently shows Nora’s fear metastasising into shame and disgust as she learns that caring for someone can leave a person vulnerable to attack. She starts to withdraw her affection from Abel; she’s a Cain who doesn’t slay her sibling so much as turn into Judas in the absence of other options. When the mockery shifts to her jobless father, her sense of shame spreads to him, too. “Why don’t you work like the other dads?” she asks censoriously.

No mother is ever mentioned (perhaps that’s why Nora gravitates towards one kindly female teacher) and the lack of any scenes at home renders the film a puzzle with missing pieces. Dad (Karim Leklou) is a contradictory sort, handing out clichés (“Losing is how you learn”) while heaping responsibility on to Nora. He makes her his spy when she tips him off about Abel’s troubles, then uses her to interpret his surliness (“What’s going on with your brother?”). In the absence of a co-parent, he burdens his daughter with duties she isn’t equipped to bear.

The script’s foreshortened focus puts unfair pressure on the narrative too, so that Nora’s own descent into anti-social behaviour feels accelerated. The picture isn’t always as hard-hitting as it means to be, and there are moments that don’t wash. Would a schoolboy conscious of his reputation really cuddle his kid sister in public? Or was I just an especially beastly brother?

Like Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, however, Playground is commendable in treating break-time brouhahas like the far-reaching, formative conflicts they really are. Exchanges in the film can sound hyperbolic: “You talk, you’re dead”; “Stick your nose in again, you’re dead”; “The ground is on fire! If you fall, you’re dead!” Then again, that’s exactly how it feels at the time. And as the fleeting mentions of online gaming and social media make clear, the worst – adolescence, in other words – may be yet to come.

“Playground” is in cinemas now

[See also: The meaning of Taxi Driver]

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma