“Playground”, which was selected the Belgian entry for the Best International Film Oscar in last year, is often quite difficult to watch. As firmly sticking to its little young heroine’s limited perspective, the movie closely and vividly observes her conflicts involved with cruel acts of abuse and ostracization at her school, and you may wince more than once while still paying attention to her painful plight to the end.
When we are introduced to Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), this little young girl is about to begin the first day at her school, and she is apparently quite nervous about that even though her dear father assures that everything will be fine for her. She wants to be near her older brother Abel (Günter Duret), but she is soon separated from him as he has to go to his class, and we later see her making an awkward introduction to her classroom teacher and other students in the classroom.
At least, things do not look that bad for Nora as she slowly gets accustomed to her new environment. While she still cannot help but feel awkward especially during her physical education class, she eventually comes to befriend several female students around her during their lunchtime, and she also gets considerable attention and support from her classroom teacher, who turns out to be more generous and caring than expected.
However, there is actually a big problem which Nora comes to notice right from the very first day at her school. It turns out that her older brother has been bullied by several classmates of his, and Nora is certainly shocked as watching Abel helplessly abused by those cruel bullies. Naturally, she wants to tell their father about that, but Abel prevents her from saying anything to their father at all, and he keeps getting abused everyday whenever schoolteachers happen to be absent around him and his bullies.
As Nora becomes more conflicted about what is happening to her older brother, the movie gets us more immersed in her limited viewpoint. With the frequent close-up shots of Nora, cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme’s camera generates a suffocating sense of isolation around her, and we come to empathize more with her growing inner conflict. Yes, Nora really wants to help her older brother as much as she can, but Abel continues to reject any help from her, and the situation becomes all the more complicated when she eventually tells her father about what is happening to Abel.
What follows next is a series of chilling moments which show us how mean and cruel kids can be. At one point, Nora witnesses her older brother tormented again by his bullies, and then she faces a dilemma without any easy solution for her. She manages to tell a bit to her classroom teacher, and her classroom teacher tries to do the right thing just like Nora, but she actually cannot do that much in the end.
As Nora and Abel conflict more with each other over their complex issue, Nora also comes to find herself gradually ostracized by other female students just because she is his younger sister. When Abel is later instructed to sit right next to her during the lunchtime, Nora soon becomes a target of vicious ridicules, and she surely feels angry and miserable. As a result, she tries to distance herself from her older brother, and that inadvertently leads to another heartbreaking moment in the film.
Only focusing on what Nora and Abel have to endure at their school, the screenplay by director/writer Laura Wandel, who received the FIPRESCI Prize when the movie was shown in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in last year, wisely lets us fill some blanks outside their little world. For instance, we do not know that much about their father except his currently unemployed status, but we can clearly sense his love toward his kids whenever he is on the screen, and that is the main reason why a certain key scene between him and Nora hits hard on emotional levels.
The last act of the film is packed with sheer emotional intensity, but everything remains held together pretty well under Wandel’s calm and austere handling of story and characters, which is often reminiscent of several memorable works of the Dardenne brothers including “The Son” (2002). Like many of the lead characters of the Dardenne brothers movies, our little heroine comes to face a difficult moral circumstance where she must make a choice, and I can only tell you that I admire how the film succinctly pulls off the powerful finale which feels not only dramatically urgent but also undeniably moving.
As the little precious heart of the film, young performer Maya Vanderbeque is simply astounding in her flawless natural acting, and she and her young co-star Günter Duret are effortless as their characters’ supposedly simple relationship is dynamically shifted from one point to another along the story. In case of a few main adult cast members in the film, Karim Leklou and Laura Verlinden dutifully fill their respective spots around Vanderbeque and Duret, and Verlinden is particularly wonderful when her character comes to have a little poignant moment with Nora.
On the whole, “Playground” is another superlative work of this year which deserves more attention in my trivial opinion, and Wandel made a commendable feature film debut here after making several short films. Although its running time is only 72 minutes, the movie is still impactful enough for us, and I think it will make you reflect more on how you managed to survive a jungle called school.