Belgium’s Oscar-shortlisted International Feature is an intimate child’s-eye view of bullying from debut writer-director Laura Wandel. Playground is known as Un Monde in its native French language, and this is set in a world of its own: the school that two siblings must navigate to get through the day.
We meet 7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) when they are dropped off at the school gates by their father (Karim Leklou). Nervous Nora just wants to hang out with Abel, but he’s busy trying to impress children his own age. “I’m beating up the new kids with Antoine,” he says, setting the stage for a drama that’s dominated by peer pressure, shifting loyalties and violence — some of which could be life-threatening, even if the perpetrators may not realize it.
These may be children, but their problems feel as urgent as any thriller, and adult-world parallels are easy to make. “We live in a fast-paced society where there is no time to deal with the root causes of problems,” Wandel has said, and the same applies to the world of Nora, whom she follows intently. The teachers and supervisors are stretched, unable to deal with the volume of upsets and scraps, so when Nora runs to them to tell them that Abel is being bullied, they often get there too late. Abel, meanwhile, is resentful of the younger sister whose very presence has resulted in a shift in his status — but later she will be presented with a terrible choice: your brother, or your friends?
It’s a gripping setup that’s relatable for anyone who remembers their days in the playground, and it’s liable to trigger uncomfortable but thought-provoking memories. Director of photography Frédéric Noirhomme stays at Nora’s height throughout, emphasizing her point of view. Adults are only seen, often glimpsed, when they crouch down to her level. Much rests on newcomer Vanderbeque, and she delivers an extraordinary performance, her subtly expressive face inviting empathy at every turn.
It’s hard not to watch Playground without sighing at the cruelty of children, and life, but Vanderbeque is kind enough to leave us with a glimmer of hope about sibling love. Playground is a sensitive approach to a topic with universal relevance, that reminds us all what it felt like to be in that world.