Playground Review: Never underestimate the cruelty of children


Rating: 4 out of 5.

A brilliant debut feature, Playground is a traumatic school tale told through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl

Playground is the debut feature from Belgian film maker Laura Wandel. It is receiving its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival where it is in competition for the Sutherland prize for the most original and imaginative directorial debut. It’s an astutely observed piece on childhood and the reality of playground politics.

Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is starting at a new school with older brother Abel (Günter Duret) and clings to her dad at the school gates, intensely shy and worried about making new friends. Nora doggedly follows Abel around, pleading with her big brother to stay by her side and protect her. But when Abel starts getting bullied by older kids, Nora is the one who must turn to teachers and parents for to help him. Abel however does not want her help and insists she stays silent even as the bullying intensifies. When everything she does just appears to make the situation worse, the young siblings increasingly fall out as they each try to maintain an image amongst their new peers.

The original French title of Playground is ”Un Monde” or ‘the world’ and it captures the feeling of the schoolyard being the entire universe for the young people inhabiting it. Indeed, it often feels somehow similar to a prison yard, mirroring the brutal power struggles and ever shifting relationships between both prisoners and children. The desperation that both groups have to fit in and not draw the wrong sort of attention.

Maya Vanderbeque in Playground
Playground copyright Dragons Films

Playground covers the whole spectrum of school relationships as our two young characters frequently shift from bully to bullied, shy to popular, clingy to distant and best friends to mortal enemies. The fickle and impressionable nature of kids good will is also emphasised by the way crazy or cruel rumours frequently spread like wildfire, it perfectly captures the memory of all those slightly more grown-up kids we all knew at school who managed to convince others that they knew everything about everything.

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Playground’s brilliance is in its simplicity and intimacy; one family and a simple story that could take place in any school in any country in the world. The two young stars are fantastic, and their performances are highlighted by cleverly thought-out photography that keeps them centred at all times and draws you in to the excitement and terror of their little world. The whole film, every shot, is seen from Nora’s eye level. Adults faces are only seen when they crouch down to her height and bigger kids are made genuinely scary to the adult audience just by use of this perspective. It’s an effectively immersive bit of film making.

As the tension mounts and the violence between children becomes increasingly disturbing yet never unrealistic, Playground cements itself as one of the best films about early childhood I’ve seen. We all knew these kids. Some of us probably were these kids. And whilst years and growth and experience allows us as adults to realise that what happens in primary school doesn’t usually ruin your whole life, Playground manages to transport it’s audience back to a time and a terrified mindset where these things really did.

Playground is playing at the BFI London Film Festival (6-17th October 2021) and awaits a general release. Tickets for the festival are available here

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