Playground

****1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Playground
"This is the playground as a warzone, where the sandpit might, indeed, be as deep as the sea and hold dead bodies and where adult authority might only make things worse." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

School bullying remains, sadly, an enduring universal theme, with filmmakers from across the globe tackling it. This consideration of it from Belgian first-time feature director Laura Wandel finds something new to say by working the angles, both hunkering down to a child's pint-size perspective and shifting the emphasis by taking the viewpoint not of the child who is the initial victim of bullying but his kid sister instead. By doing this, she is able to not just the direct impact bullying has on the bullied but the indirect consequences of these actions as the toxicity created seeps across the schoolyard.

"You'll make lots of friends," Nora's dad (Karim Leklou) tells her as the seven-year-old (Maya Vanderbeque) clings tearfully to him at the gates on her first day. We've all been there, that first step into the unknown world of the classroom, the sheer anxiety of it etched across Nora's face. The original French title translates as "A World" and, in many ways, that is more appropriate than the English one chosen, as Wandell immerses us in the organised chaos of the school realm, the sea of noise, the faces of adults who are not unkind but equally don't have much time to get involved in the business of doling out individual sympathy when they have a whole cohort to look after. We're with world in this looming world of alien otherness, with Frédéric Noirhomme’s camerawork emphasising her smallness in the face of everything else. Naturally, she is desperate to spend lunchtime with her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) but is forbidden to change seats by a dinnerlady, the sort of small injustice this film is riddled with and which could have big consequences.

Nora is, understandably, watchful of her surroundings but, like most kids, she soon begins to make some tentative friendships, something Wandel also depicts in detail, showing the push and pull of playground politics, the small kindnesses and cruelties that most kids encounter from their peers on a daily basis. One minute you could be biting your sandwich to make it look like a dinosaur, the next you might be being told to lie on the ground as 'punishment' for failure at a game. Wandel is equally watchful, observing Vanderbeque and her other young stars carefully, so we see the moral choices they find themselves making based on their limited life experience.

What Nora sees start to happen to Abel is different from the general cut and thrust. He's being picked on by bigger boys who mean business, her anxieties further fuelled by the fact that he forbids her to tell their dad. This is the playground as a warzone, where the sandpit might, indeed, be as deep as the sea and hold dead bodies and where adult authority might only make things worse. Wandel shows how Nora's sympathies are tested not just by her brother's reaction but also by her new-found friends, who see the benefits of swimming with the shoal, especially when they sense blood in the water. Wandel doesn't let up, like Nora, we can't suddenly escape the school gates on a whim, as she shows how the lack of recourse can lead to a spiral of negative emotions.

Despite all this, Wandel's film - which has become Belgium's nominee for Best International Feature and which is screening as part of the French Film Festival UK - is not judgemental of the children. She shows their capacity for good as well as bad, while also emphasising the slippery slope all too readily available, especially if adults aren't paying the attention they should.

Reviewed on: 09 Nov 2021
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Playground packshot
A little girl faces a moral dilemma after she sees her brother being bullied.

Director: Laura Wandel

Writer: Laura Wandel

Starring: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Lena Girard Voss, Laura Verlinden, Karim Leklou

Year: 2021

Runtime: 72 minutes

Country: Belgium


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