Surviving school in harrowing Playground

Stark portrayal of the gut-wrenching fear some young people experience on childhood journeys

Thursday, 21st April — By Dan Carrier


Maya Vanderbeque and Gunter Duret in Playground

Directed by Laura Wandel
Certificate: 12a

OUR innate cruelty to each other is at the heart of this moving, thoughtful and horribly real story set in a school in Belgium.

There is a moment in the opening scene where seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) finally leaves her father’s loving embrace in her first day and is led into the school by a teacher. She glances back, before freeing herself from the teacher’s grip and dashing back for one last cuddle. The simplicity in this action piques the viewer’s curiosity – and is so life-like it warns you just how harrowing an experience you are in for.

Director Wandel follows Nora’s journey through a playground battlefield with a rawness that puts you on her shoulder and gives you a Nora’s-eye view of the world. It’s stark, dangerous and worryingly true.

Nora tells her dad (Karim Leklou) she isn’t too keen on going to school. Her father comforts her as best he can. Her older brother Abel (Gunter Duret) is on hand to look out for her and let her know that school’s actually all right – except, as Nora discovers, Abel is finding it’s pretty far from being all right.

She watches her older brother, this family’s rock, face horrendous bullying in the playground – and seeing her sibling taking such punishment forces her to rapidly reevaluate the childlike world she has so far inhabited. What rises from these extraordinary performances is how the child’s world at times mimics the worst of that of the adults.

Abel becomes the socially excluded kid, and Nora, who at first tries to help, faces an agonising question of loyalties.

The ideas within the film are universal, easy to recognise, and true. The idea of the world of bullying and being bullied comes alive with frightening clarity.

The adults in this story are kept to the edge, while the children administering the pain are also shadows. It gives the viewer the incidents from Nora’s perspective and recreates the violence and the deep, gut-wrenching fear young people experience when the cruelties of human nature raise their ugly heads during our childhood journeys.

Above all, the clever directing works particularly well because of the first-class acting from Vanderbeque and Duret. They will break your hearts in every scene.

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