‘Playground’ Review: Laura Wandel’s Harrowing Debut Shows Recess for the War Zone It Really Is

“Playground,” the debut feature from Belgian director Laura Wandel, will transport you back to your own elementary school years — whether you like it or not. Walking down the narrow staircases of your school hand-in-hand with a friend, struggling to learn to tie your shoes, or worrying about where to sit at lunch are among the moments that Wandel captures with an alarming sense of authenticity, to the point where her film could almost be confused for a documentary. “Playground” nimbly zeroes in on this world, seen through the eyes of the shy seven-year-old student Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), as she warily navigates her new school, the same that her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) attends.

Despite its title, however, Wandel’s focus is not the unbridled joy and freedom of childhood, though there are some rare instances of it here. Instead, she paints a harrowing picture of the memories many of us have tried to forget, where school is a warzone rife with violence and bullying, one that children are forced to largely maneuver alone.

Wandel is interested in the life-cycle of bullying, and the violence we’re taught to use as a defense mechanism at a young age. Wandel’s previous shorts include “Foreign Bodies” (2014) and “O Negatif” (2011), the latter of which also observes the ways that cruelty begets violence, here between a mother and her distant daughter.

In “Playground,” Wandel employs a verité style sans musical score, inherited largely from fellow Belgians Jean-Pierre and Luc Derdenne, whom she cites as an influence in the film’s press notes, getting as close as possible to Nora’s perspective — director of photography Frédéric Noirhomme was rigged with a camera at Nora’s height, and shoots the entire film this way, offering a kind of visual “Peanuts” effect when adults’ height renders them out of frame. This powerful choice emphasizes grown-ups’ inability to understand the complexities of the playground, and their impotence when it comes to stopping bullying and violence, most of which they witness too late.

Shot in extreme close-up, Nora’s face is introduced to us in agony, and it more or less stays this way for the duration of the film — she always appears to be a little afraid. The film opens in a moment of extreme emotional distress, as Nora embraces Abel, her tear-streaked face conveying the sheer terror of a child arriving at a new school. Her pained reaction as she’s dragged away from her brother and father, feels more appropriate for someone being sent to the gulag, not first grade.

This may seem like an overstatement, but Wandel wants us to feel the exaggerated emotions of a child, where both the good and the bad are pushed to maximum intensity, and absolutely everything is dire. Thanks to the camerawork, impressive sound design, and knockout performance from Vanderbeque, we experience every emotion Nora feels. Through months of exercises with Wandel, the cast, and two coaches, workshopping character dynamics and emotional improvisation, Vanderbeque, who had never acted before, gives the part her all. At one moment, she’s showing her character’s withdrawn and delicate nature, at another, exploding with that potent mix of fear, rage, and inexplicable frustration that children can be burdened with in moments of duress.

These emotions come into play as Nora watches her brother evolve from playground bully into the very target of the abuse he was inflicting. Abel initially tries to defend Nora from the bullies’ playground hazing, which ultimately makes him the new scapegoat for their violent games. Devastated, Nora tries to help Abel, not realizing that she’s making it worse by involving teachers, which further invokes the bullies’ ire.

“Why are they doing this?” she asks Abel, wrapping him up in a hug to comfort him after he’s had his head repeatedly dunked into a school toilet. Later, he tells her to get lost when she approaches him on the playground. “When you hang around with me, I get beaten up,” he says. Her concerned expression conveys a level of stress far beyond her years, as she juggles her brother’s pleas, her own desire to help, and later, her desperate father’s requests to tell him what’s going on.

Nora learns to distance herself from Abel, making new friends who at first seem to be above bullying. But this step in the direction of independence and self-sufficiency is thwarted when her friends join in the mean-spirited fun, teasing Nora for being Abel’s sister, and disinviting her from a birthday party. Nora lashes out, ripping up the invitations in despair — a violent reaction to an emotional event. Any chance for Nora to grow is challenged in this environment, a place where it’s easier to be cruel than kind, and turning the other cheek takes a level of maturity the children have yet to reach. As Abel resorts to bullying the only child who deigns to be seen with him on the playground, Nora confronts her inner strength to stop him, recognizing that she’s perhaps more powerful than she realizes.

“Playground” is a lesson on the genesis and effects of abuse, how one bullied child becomes the bully, in a never-ending cycle of harm. While Wandel does well to leave some things to the imagination, like what happens beyond the schoolyard,  she not-so-subtly nails the point home in the end, showing how all it takes is one person to stop bullying at its source. Still, her film is an arresting, eye-opening look at how violence begins at an early age, and how we can learn to be bystanders, or have the strength to speak out.

Grade: B+

A Film Movement release, “Playground” is now playing at Film Forum.

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