A tender and poignant portrait of childhood, Playground is characterized by its exploration of universal but difficult questions while remaining grounded in everyday settings and harsh realities. Before we thoroughly grasp the various challenges of adulthood, we are impressionable and emotionally pliable as children. Such sagaciously sharp insights about growing up form the crux of this Belgian film written and directed by Laura Wandel.
The story revolves around the themes of acceptance, identity, and guilt while also telling the personal tale of a child’s ascent to realization. It takes place in an unnamed Belgian region, and the key moments of the film unravel within the boundaries of an elementary school and its playground. The kids are taught to abide by the disciplines and code of conduct and be responsible citizens in the future. They learn and follow orders, but occasionally also rebel.
The film’s beauty lies in how it allows us to reflect on our memories of childhood with a sense of amazement. It is an extraordinarily tense drama that paints a claustrophobic picture of pre-adolescent turmoil with ease.
Seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) attends primary school in Belgium and would do anything to stay with her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). But Abel has his own issues to deal with. Nora soon realizes that her brother is being harassed by boys older to him.
Fearing social rejection, Abel disallows his younger sister from speaking about it to his father and school authorities. As days pass, the school becomes an arena for Nora, where she learns to communicate and finds her place in the community. Nora gradually finds her footing. The shy girl who was first introduced to us finds a voice. She’s thrown into a more mature world as she seeks her place in the harsh environment of the playground.
Later, Abel quickly joins the harassing gang and irks Nora. She now distances herself from Abel, the brother she once cherished, and no longer interacts with him at school.
The treatment of the film emphasizes school as a child’s first introduction to society in how everyone wants to fit in and be accepted. The various events that unfold in the film put us up close and personal with them. We’re more absorbed in their world than being mere spectators of it.
The educational institution serves as the only backdrop for the entire film. There are no scenes in the film that occur outside the premises of the school compound. We never find Nora and Abel with their father at home. The entire narrative universe begins and ends inside the school. Thus the character appears as if trapped in an environment where they must learn the rules of society.
Nora is submissive to the school’s various curricular activities. She has lunch with her schoolmates and develops a friendly relationship with them. She attends various exercise classes that not only help mold her mind but also discipline her body. At the same time, such short sequences of Nora‘s daily school routine are interspersed with her brother being bullied off-screen to heighten the tension in the film.
Thereby, Wandel not only focuses on the wild excitement and liberties of childhood but also depicts a terrifying image of the memories that many of us have attempted to escape. The school also denotes a territory brimming with violence and intimidation that kids are mainly left to navigate on their own. The teachers who’re unable to prevent the bullying and violence, because of their absence, are signifiers of their powerlessness to control the situation.
Frédéric Noirhomme’s cinematography adheres to a verité style and adds to the film’s ability to be small in scale but large in its revelations. The manner in which Nora‘s various psychological phases are framed allows us to step into the shoes of her innocent and pure character. The camera is placed low, at their eye level, allowing the audience to see the world through their eyes. Nora‘s face is introduced to us in anguish and remains that way for most of the film, which is primarily shot in extreme close-up.
In the opening moments, when Nora embraces Abel, her face is smeared with tears as she captures the utter anxiety of a young child entering a new school, hauled away from her brother and father. The film is presented entirely from the viewpoint of the children. Nora is always in focus, while other characters don’t come into the picture unless they become pertinent to her, further indicative that Nora only sees a small portion of what is actually happening.
Maya Vanderberque and Günter Duret are outstanding young actors. There isn’t a hint of artificiality on display, and both are equally terrific in their parts.
Playground is a lesson on the causes and consequences of harassment, showing how one victim of abuse ends up becoming the bully in a destructive cycle of harm. It is a compelling, sobering examination of how violence starts at a young age and how we can either learn to be passive observers or be brave enough to rebel.
FTII alumnus and freelance writer. My articles have appeared in Scroll.in, The Hindu, Livemint.com, The Quint, The Tribune, Upperstall, among other publications.