Playground review: An essential film about childhood
Script and cinematography10
Matthew Turner | On 01, Jun 2022
Director: Laura Wandel
Cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Karim Leklou
Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel makes a stunning debut with this gripping drama centred on playground bullying. Evocative, beautifully acted and emotionally wrenching, it’s one of the best films of 2021.
The story centres on 7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a tearful new arrival at the school attended by her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). Despite Abel’s assurances that everything will be OK, Nora is hurt when he tries to distance himself from her in the playground. Later, when she sees Abel being bullied by some scary older boys, Nora tries to help, but only ends up making things worse.
Wandel’s exceptional direction maintains a child’s eye view throughout, with the camera never rising above Nora’s eye level – consequently, we only see older children and adults when they bend down to talk to her. It’s an extremely impressive achievement by cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme.
By keeping tight focus on Nora in every shot (a style strongly reminiscent of Wandel’s fellow Belgians, the Dardenne brothers) and restricting the action so that there are no scenes outside of school grounds, the film effectively creates a microcosm, as reflected in Playground’s original language title, Un Monde, or A World. That’s augmented by some evocative sound design work that perfectly recreates the atmosphere of the school playground – a cacophony of shrieks, laughter, chatter and general chaos.
At the heart of that chaos is a phenomenal child performance from young Vanderbeque, whose tomboyish looks belie a level of toughness that isn’t really there. On screen in every single scene, she’s simply remarkable to watch, as she navigates her way through a complex new world with rules and hierarchies. Your heart soars when she makes a new friend or actually smiles at something, although those moments of happiness are few and far between.
Günter Duret is equally good as Abel, who’s navigating a difficult journey of his own, as he’s increasingly picked on in the playground. The genius of the film is that it plays out in a similar way to grown-up prison dramas, with the same fear of random violence and similar unwritten laws with regard to snitches.
The interaction between the children feels so naturalistic that it could easily pass for documentary footage. The script is also packed with moving between-the-lines detail, most notably in the way Nora’s perception of her father and brother subtly shifts as a result of her school experiences.
On top of that, the film makes some heartbreakingly astute observations on the cycle of abuse, specifically the way that those who are bullied will in turn find someone weaker than themselves to pick on. To that end, this is by no means an easy watch in places, but it’s an essential film about childhood that demands to be seen. It also marks out Wandel as a serious talent to watch.
This review was originally published during the 2021 London Film Festival.