Thursday 7 October 2021

Playground (Laura Wandel, 2021)

Laura Wandel's debut feature is a taut, crisp tale that unfolds entirely within the premises of a Belgian school; in line with the film's prosaic English title, much of the action takes place during break times, which frequently host activities far more sinister than the good-natured games for which they were intended.  While watching Playground, you're never very far away from an instance of bullying, and Wandel presents such scenes in a most unsentimental manner.  While there are countless films centring on adolescence and its associated growing pains, Playground finds a rare direct line to the emotions experienced by those children who endure bullying; on a relatively good day, such kids will merely feel uncomfortable, whereas the worst days will see sheer terror take hold of these victims.       

As Playground begins, Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is anxiously beginning her first day at a new school.  Nora's older brother Abel (Günter Duret) has already headed into the building, but this fact doesn't provide much comfort for the young girl, who is loath to part with her father Finnigan (Karim Leklou) at the gates.  Once she's eventually inside the school, Nora cuts a withdrawn, isolated figure in class, and during break time she seeks out her brother in the playground; Abel tries to shepherd Nora away from the group of children he's with, but his sister's dogged approach—as evidenced earlier at the school gates—reveals that Abel is toady to several bullies who are roughing up the new kids.  As Nora suddenly finds herself in the bullies' sights, Abel instinctively steps in to defend his little sister; from this point on, Abel's school experience becomes a living hell.

Nora goes on to make friends with a couple of her classmates, one of whom promises to invite Nora to her imminent birthday party; however, Abel's ceaseless humiliations—which reach a nadir when he's dumped in a skip—prompt these girls to gradually alienate Nora, and the eagerly awaited party invitation fails to materialise.  In turn, Nora—who now views Abel as the cause of these soured friendships—starts to resent her older brother.  Finnigan is most concerned by his children's behaviour, and he eventually manages to prise the truth from Nora; while his pro-active approach appears to somewhat defuse the situation, his children are still quite unhappy as they slog their way through the interminable school day.  After a meeting involving Abel, his tormentors and their respective parents, an uneasy truce is brokered, and this paves the way for Abel to revert to his role as a perpetrator of bullying; naturally, Nora is not impressed. 

As the literal focus of the film—the camera rarely leaves her pale, pensive face—Nora acts as our conduit to this world, one that will initially seem quite alien to those of us who left school decades ago.  Yet Wandel's great achievement here is to place us in Nora's shoes, and with that we experience the full-bore nightmare that the school experience can be for some children; the film's French title, Un monde ("a world"), neatly encapsulates the all-consuming nature of the milieu Nora inhabits.  The camera almost invariably remains at Nora's height, so the various adults she interacts with are often reduced to off-camera voices; such is the relentless focus on Nora, her peers are frequently filtered out in much the same manner.  Maya Vanderbeque is simply terrific as Nora, and Laura Wandel moves things along with great economy and little fuss; the film screens at the London Film Festival on Monday and Tuesday.

Darren Arnold

Images: Tandem