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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Playground (2022)

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Looking back, our years at school are often met with either of these two things: nostalgia in reliving the peak years of your life (oof), or absolute disdain and trauma (hey at least it’s character building and you’re thriving right now. You do you, champ). We often find ourselves looking back mainly at our high school years: dragging our awkward, gross, changing bodies towards our adult years in hopes that we will finally be comfortable with the skin we live in. But oftentimes, we forget our very first years in school and just how overwhelmingly overwhelming they were, as well as how traumatic they can be and ultimately were. Regardless of you possibly being popular in primary/elementary school, there was always a phase of growing pains – a phase where you were either sitting comfortably in your own, safe little circle or an unfortunate victim left out of the loop as the rest of the herd pick you off for no logical reason other than to survive and avoid a similar fate. These years, especially the early ones, really were brutal and unlike other wonderful films that cherish the nostalgia of our carefree youth over the pain of it all, Playground refuses it, working as an effective trigger in both trauma and regret, depending on where you found yourself on the ladder of course.

Playground, or its French title Un Monde, is a Belgian drama film that spiritually, is a survival thriller – a relentless barrage of punches to the gut that, for me, at least, reminds me of the horrors of integrating yourself into school for the first time. Laura Wandel’s debut film may be short, but it most certainly isn’t sweet - capturing the brutality and anxiety of a new environment that is highly effective in overwhelming you the entirety of its running time. Playground follows 7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), who, after being protected by her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) against the alpha bully in his friend group, begins a cycle of bullying towards him that forces Nora to have to choose between protecting or abandoning her brother in order to survive. It’s a brutal, cruel and unfortunately, accurate portrayal of the fickle, irrational schoolyard politics that has triggered some regretful and painful memories of my own past of being bullied, and unfortunately, partaking in some bullying in order to survive.

The first frames of Playground has a teary-eyed Nora holding her dad tight, refusing to let go as he drops her off for the first day of school. We were all here at some point - terrified of stepping outside our protective home bubble, fearing the worst. “Sink or swim” is what it felt like being so young and thrown into such an overwhelming environment, but it’s through this ruthlessness that we would eventually find ourselves coming to terms with what we are capable of for better or for worse all those years ago. As mentioned before, writer/director Laura Wandel has no intention of letting this be a hit of sweet nostalgia, but to be one that triggers our inner anxieties and reminds us how it felt all those years back and how that feeling often never goes away. It’s scary, and with Playground, reminds us just how cruel and merciless kids can be - kill or be killed, hunt or be hunted. The playground feels like a jungle, a warzone that tests these kids’ kindness, malice and even their indifference. The playground is where these characters endure the harshest of conditions, forming integral parts of their personalities going forward in life whether they like it or not. Wandel is clever in how she frames and structures Playground. Although not all of it takes place on the playground (classrooms, swimming pool, gymnastics hall, cafeteria), it’s very appropriately the primary setting where the film’s key themes congregate most regularly. We are never shown their home. The closest we get to their home life is when their dad picks them up and drops them off, fuelling unfair speculation about their home life by gossip spread among other students. The playground is effectively the battlefield, a place where feelings and ideas blow up thanks to what we, and other students, learn of each other in the other key locations in between breaks.

Most of the film’s perspective is shot handheld and at Nora’s eye-level, with adults often having to crouch down to appear in frame and speak to her or any of the other children (Céline Sciamma also did this recently to brilliant effect with last year’s Petite Maman). But instead of showing us what Nora is looking at, Wandel opts to keep the camera focused solely on Nora’s facial expressions and body language. We often don't see what she is seeing; instead, we experience what she is experiencing. It’s shot much in the same way as the effectively harrowing holocaust thriller drama Son of Saul (2015), forcing us into a tight box with its protagonist, barely allowing us to draw breath when we need it most. Playground does this just as well, priming the focus squarely on Nora as she battles with personal and moral dilemmas regularly centred around either helping her brother, abandoning him, or hiding in her own corner, staying away from any and all trouble. We actually see and feel these dilemmas clawing their nails into her. It makes the experience of Playground highly intimate and all the more devastating as we come to terms with our own traumas so consistently shaped by our own schooldays. Personally, it’s incredibly hard watching Nora go through such external and internal conflicts because I went through some of the very same things. I may not have had an older brother around at school, but I went through the terrible motions of being bullied and unfortunately, having to follow the herd on occasion in order to stay alive and avoid retribution from bigger, badder bullies for just one more day. This happens regularly in Playground as everyone begins to pile onto her brother, as well as spreading false rumours that eventually affect Nora and her social stance. It’s still frighteningly relevant to our adult lives as well, and although we can handle such situations better (or at least we like to think so), it’s everywhere we look, from gossip rags to incessant chatter in our work and friend circles. It’s a relentless cycle that dates back to our days in the schoolyard, effectively creating large parts of who we were, are and who we are still becoming.

It’s not just the visuals that make for Playground’s unbearably tense viewing experience, but that of sound as well. There is no swelling music to influence how we feel, but only that of the school’s ambience to further elicit that sense of anxiety we feel for our characters, as well as placing us in familiar territory from our memories we desperately want to escape from. The hustle and bustle of the halls, the chattering of the mess hall and finally the incessant buzz of the playground, it all adds to this growing sense of dread surrounding Nora and Abel, but also allow us to really feel like we are right there with them, experiencing everything they experience as they fight for survival in an increasingly hostile environment. In the moments where silence is finally granted to both us and Nora, the dense noise that preceded it still rings in our ears - echoing the anxieties and insecurities felt in Nora as she constantly thinks about her brother and the careful, necessary steps needed in order to avoid being targeted ultimately exiled from her own friend circle. It’s highly effective visual and aural filmmaking from Wandel that grabs us by the scruff of the neck and drags us right to the finale. It’s a film that really does justice to how horrifying and genuinely scary this period in our lives was. Even outside its external focal point of bullying, Wandel captures the very essence of what it feels like to take this big first step into an unknown future and world all by yourself. Sure, parents and teachers are around, but at the end of the day, you’re all alone, having to make quick decisions that will play a vital part in shaping who you are and will eventually become. I’m not saying that who you are as a child and school determines exactly who you will always be for the definite future, but it certainly gives you priceless perspective going forward in life. I am not going to sit here and say I never partook in bullying. Regretfully, I did. Even if I didn’t intimidate and hurt others physically, I’ve partaken in name-calling and finger-pointing that made things way harder for others. It’s maddening knowing what it feels like to be on the receiving end of this, yet I did it to others. Nora is so relatable in that she isn’t entirely innocent and like those around her, eventually has to partake in different forms of bullying to ensure that she isn’t the next one targeted. It’s such a relatable film in that it reminds people on both sides of the aisle what it was and is still like. Of course, it never justifies bullying, but shows us the intricate nature of what causes the cycle to continue endlessly.

With Wandel’s unflinching eye for emotional and psychological conflict, it’s the performances of the children that carry this film to such devastating heights. Maya Vanderbeque pulls off the Herculean task of being the film’s focal point, constantly on-screen having to portray a wide gamut of nuanced emotions she achieves through jaw-dropping instinct only the most experienced of actors are capable of conjuring. As far as great child performances go, she is right up there with one of the best I have ever seen. It also goes to show just how skilled Wandel is as an actor's director, harnessing Vanderbeque’s inexperience as a performer and helping her orchestrate an intense, natural performance of someone constantly fighting to find her place in an increasingly hostile environment. It’s not just her who is spectacularly authentic and believable though, Duret as her brother Abel catches the brunt of the film’s harshest external obstacles, constantly having to give up, adapt and eventually needing to reinvent himself in order to get out of the spotlight. It’s a performance showcase made even more impressive because they cannot hide from Wandel’s lens, forcing us to truly experience what they are experiencing in resolute, convincing fashion

Playground is a tough viewing experience. It’s so effective in creating a genuine sense of discomfort and unease that forces us to fight or flight alongside the characters of Nora and Abel as we thrush about, forcing our way out of the deep end. It’s a strange case in that it’s a family film that isn’t really a family film in the traditional sense. Instead, it could easily be identified as a survival horror thriller much in the same vein as Funny Games and Son of Saul - a journey that awakens your best and worst instincts as you crawl through the gravel and broken glass of schoolyard memories you want to forget. It’s easily one of the most unforgettable film experiences of the year, carried by one of the great child performances you’ll ever likely see. Playground is somehow both tender and unforgivably brutal. It’s vivid, intimate and visceral filmmaking at its uncompromising best. You won’t forget this one in a hurry.

Where you can watch it: MUBI (USA), Most VOD platforms (UK).

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