PLAYGROUND – Review by April Neale

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

Belgian indie film Playground (Un Monde) is a modern snapshot of a story as old as humanity, learning how to fit in, make friends and survive. Never easy, especially today, where all of these childhood social interactions are exacerbated by social media and seemingly handled differently across the Atlantic.

In America, many school districts have a zero bullying tolerance policy and are pretty Draconian in meting out punishment to the offending child. In this film, you wonder what the hell the teachers are doing while some rough stuff is going on under their noses.

But director Laura Wandel’s stunning and intimate look inside the brick and mortar daily world of seven-year-old Nora (outstandingly played by Maya Vanderbeque) and her big brother Abel (also incredibly acted by Günter Duret) will reverberate because we all went through the trials and tribulations of school.

Learning coping skills, political machinations, and making alliances are all part of growing up, and it’s never easy. Enemies today in first grade can be besties by fourth, depending on how the tea leaves end up in the cup. Unfortunately, sometimes kids never get that reprieve, and bullying—especially the social media element—can create a suicide watch situation. Or it can create monsters.

When Nora sees what is going on at school for her brother Abel, she becomes his advocate, against his will, of course, because nothing makes unchecked bullying worse than ratting out kids to adults. A bit more wizened to this fact, Abel tells her to remain silent. Caught in a conflict of loyalty, Nora will learn the hard way how the tables can turn, and the cruelty of children is as mercurial as the weather in the Arctic. Wandel’s lensing and direction bring you right into their daily fray, which dredges up all the feelings.

Nora is now witnessing what we all have experienced, kids banding together in changeable cliques and being awful to each other in grade school.

Out of the teacher’s sight, the nastiness of children’s behavior and the bond of two siblings in the same school is expertly captured by Wandel’s film crew as she shows us up close the inner life of the playground—warts and all.

Hazing new younger kids by the bigger kids are rite-of-passage dogma and recess’s daily exercise. Playground also underscores the instinctive prejudice of perceived gender assignments as Nora learns to feel shame for her stay-at-home dad. Thanks, of course, to the mean girls’ snide remarks to her. This becomes a turning point as Nora learns the ropes of Elementary School Survival 101. Finally, even Nora starts to question her father’s worth.

But in Abel’s case, his tormentors are relentless. Initially, Nora is terrified of her new school and fiercely protective of Abel. Over time, as her journey eases and friends surround her, Abel’s situation becomes direr. He’s trying hard to manage it and keep his parents and the teachers from knowing the extent of it all, but the daily tortures accelerate.

Remember recess? It will all come back to you as Wandel’s camera navigates this cloistered world with Nora as she anxiously scouts for her brother Abel, stoically weathering play yard brutalities. The two hide all abuse from their parents in a silent pact to keep the wolves in the schoolhouse at bay. Nora’s teacher, the compassionate Madame Agnès (Laura Verlinden), seems to be the only adult in the school aware something is very wrong. Then Nora breaks the code of omerta and tells daddy who tries to manage his son’s problems.

The tables eventually turn for Abel, but what cost to his relationship with Nora?

Wandel’s lens is always at eye level with her child actors, taking us inside this strange world of a European elementary school where each grade’s teachers take up the cause of their students discounting another teacher’s concerns. The psychology of bullying gets close-ups from every angle here. The teachers’ overall lack of observational skills. Abel’s desperate bid to conceal the abuse. Nora’s frustration, embarrassment, and anger over Abel’s inability to stop it. The worry and concern of the father’s eyes who cannot control it and the bullies who opportunistically prey on weak ones, especially Abel, until his survival skills emerge.

The emotions elicited from your childhood memory bank might overwhelm you as you journey with Nora and Abel in the schoolyard gauntlet. Perhaps it will bring up your deepest fears or memories of that as a parent seeing a child off for their first day of school. Were you a tormentor or silent participant to save your skin as a child? Were you a champion for picked-on kids? Did you witness a sibling being bullied and felt helpless?

One of the hardest of life’s lessons is learning the art of survival, something not all of us can accomplish. Something a parent cannot instill, this fight to live and let live has to come from within the person.

You learn to hit back, stand up for yourself, or be eaten alive in these situations. But the world is full of bullies, and learning how to neuter them and rise above them is as unique to every person as a fingerprint.

This is a tough film to watch, but it’s a very good film and one that can be an excellent tool for any parents in a situation where they know their kid is a target at school.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and television critic. Neale has read her work both on NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously written for various industry trades and entertainment websites. Neale has written for Monsters and Critics since 2003, and is an editor and main contributor to the TV, Film and Culture (formerly Lifestyle) sections.