Playground (Film Movement Plus, NR)

Some adults like to idolize childhood as a time of innocence and simple pleasures and no big worries. To which I can only say—have you ever been a child? Have you ever met one in their natural state? Laura Wendel’s Playground offers a view of children’s social relations through the character of a seven-year-old girl named Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) who seems to have a lot of anxiety about things in general and school in particular. That’s a problem because school constitutes a major part of most children’s social world (the French title, “Un monde” or “A World” conveys this meaning) aside from the part about getting a good education so you can get a good job. This aspect of kid world is definitely not all pretty, and sometimes it’s pretty savage, as the strong prey on the weak and those in charge don’t do much about it.

We don’t get Nora’s backstory directly but can surmise that she and her older brother Abel (Günther Duret) are starting at a new school. Nora is very fond of Abel and, when she sees him being bullied, wants to defend him, wants him to defend himself, and wants the adults around them to help. All those expectations are a way of saying that she’s not wise to the rules of this new world, while Abel knows better but doesn’t know how to communicate his understanding to her. She complies with his wish to say nothing about what’s happening to him, even to their father (Karim Leklou), who is their primary caretake (apparently an unusual situation at this school, because several children comment on it). Dad is well-meaning but not much practical help, while the adults at the school play their role by being clueless and useless, as if they’ve never met a kid before either, even though their literal job is to help children and keep them safe.

You see Nora’s world literally from her point of view as the camera mostly shoots from the level of her head, so adults appear like disembodied legs and torsos unless they make the effort to get down to the kids’ level. The camera also stays with her throughout, so the other characters are seen if she is near them, and even then we often see her reaction to someone or something that remains offscreen rather than view the person or thing for ourselves. The action of Playground stays within the school, and the important stuff happens not during lessons but at times like recess and lunch when the students are allowed to mix freely and must sort out their alliances and networks.   

Playground lives and dies on the skill of its young actors, particularly Vanderbeque, who gives a remarkably natural performance. It’s also a strong debut for Wandel, whose previous work includes several shorts and two episodes of a television series. Playground was a finalist for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2021 and won awards at several international festivals, including the London Film Festival (Best First Feature), the Amiens Film Festival (Best Film), and the Cannes Film Festival (the FIPRESCI Un Certain Regard Prize). | Sarah Boslaugh

Playground is available for streaming from Film Movement Plus.

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