Movies · Reviews

‘Playground’ Flawlessly Captures the Cruelties of Childhood

Laura Wandel’s debut feature — selected as Belgium’s entry for the Best International Feature Film award at the Oscars — gets to the heart of childhood’s dark truths.
Playground Movie
Film Movement
By  · Published on February 11th, 2022

Playground, the remarkable debut feature from writer-director Laura Wandel, captures the everyday cruelty of childhood in ways viewers are unlikely to have witnessed on screen before. The realism of its depiction of the goings-on at a school playground may trigger some audiences. But those who stick with the film will be treated to a pair of exquisite performances by children who exhibit more emotional depth than even the most experienced of actors.

The entirety of Playground takes place at the school of seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). The film begins with Abel telling his sister to stay away from his affairs. He joins the other boys in bullying another kid because — he says — it will keep their attention elsewhere. As she does throughout the film, Nora takes her direction from a strong inner sense of right and wrong. She decides to try and stop her brother from joining the bullies. The plan backfires.

The boys then begin to taunt and physically bully Abel. It quickly turns violent. As things progress, Nora tries to help, but Abel insists: she must say nothing and do nothing. He makes her promise not to tell their father (Karim Leklou) about the bullies. If she does, it will only make things worse. Nora finds herself in the ultimate dilemma: should she try to help her brother, or should she be loyal and keep her promise?

The answer may seem obvious, but Wandel feels through the nuances of the situation, or at least how the children see them, in a gripping, painful way. When Nora tells her father, he alerts the feckless recess supervisors. They become more aware, but when they turn their backs, the bullies grow even more brutal. Nora and Abel are proven right and both suffer.

Playground unpacks a simple truth: it can be really hard to be a kid. The legitimate thoughts and feelings of children are often dismissed and ignored by adults. Children have an innate sense of right and wrong, but also want to be cool and fun so others will like them. And while children love their siblings, sometimes they just want and need a bit of space.

The 72-minute film has an energy and flow that keeps its audience’s blood pumping as if it were in a thriller. While watching, memories of one’s own childhood may come flooding back into the mind. Some viewers may leave Playground wondering how they survived childhood at all.

Wandel and cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme keep the camera low for most of the film, capturing the world from Nora’s perspective. Her view feels small and lonely. Her unknowing vulnerability becomes palpable. And such fear for her only grows as the audience witnesses her interactions with adults, who repeatedly downplay her concerns or ignore them altogether.

The low camera of Playground often captures adults around their waist and legs. Only once they bend down and get on Nora’s level do we see their faces in full. The framing exacerbates the divide between them: while the adults are physically present, Nora is mentally and emotionally on her own.

Another key formal choice comes in the lack of deep focus. Nora’s surroundings appear blurred, leaving only her thoughts, movements, and facial expressions in focus. The world around her remains unclear, mysterious. This heightened subjectivity captures what it is like to be a child, to navigate a world that one does not fully understand. It is in the blurry unknown that children must so often live and work through things alone. It’s a dark, harsh reality.

School, and the playground specifically, are among the first places where children are exposed to the inhumanity of society writ large. Bubbles break and psychological struggles ensue. For example, Abel and Nora’s classmates begin to mock and question why their father, who brings them to school every day, does not work. The film provides no answer. The audience has no reason to believe anything nefarious. But Abel and Nora begin to wonder. Their normal becomes challenged, and they have no way to process. Their youth and innocence begin to float away.

Part of what makes Playground so devastating is knowing that Nora and Abel, like all children, are only going to face more obstacles as they get older. That they will grow and become members of a society that is just as unfair and difficult to navigate. How cruel is it that not even childhood can be free of such burdens?

When Nora gets dropped off at school, Wandel tends to return to a similar shot: Nora, hands at the top of her backpack, faces the camera and turns away from her father. She walks into the school and begins another day. In that shot, the audience confronts the nightmarish repetition of life.

Playground is like an amusement park ride in the best possible way: short, fast, turbulent. And when it is over, viewers may need to remain seated and catch their breath before standing. The film takes complete hold of both mind and body. And hours and even days later, one might still feel the aftershocks of watching it.

Films like this don’t come around often. It seems to reach out, grab its viewer by the collar, and demand contemplation of one’s own childhood, the very nature of childhood itself, how grown-ups interact with children, and the way we all treat each other.

Once the film ends and lets us go, we not only reflect on such questions, but on the triumph of cinema that we have just endured. It is easy to dip into cliché when describing a film like Playground, but readers must know that Wandel’s debut feature is simply, utterly flawless.

Playground opens on February 11th in New York and on February 18th in Los Angeles. A national rollout will follow (see upcoming theater bookings here). 

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.