Directed by: Laura Wandel
Distributed by: Film Movement
Written by Michael Clawson
While it seems like the Dardennes brothers’ stock might have fallen in recent years, their distinct brand of social realism continues to be influential. Case in point: Laura Wandel’s “Playground,” the Belgian filmmaker’s feature debut, and a visceral, tightly focused study of grade-school bullying as seen through the eyes of a child. Wandel uses a verité style to turn elementary school recess into a realm of harrowing intensity.
On her first day of school, Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is so terrified to enter the building and the unknown social world awaiting her that she clings tearfully to her brother and father before having to go inside alone. Wandel treats Nora’s trepidation with the utmost seriousness: the camera remains closely tethered to Nora’s perspective throughout “Playground,” provoking an appreciation for how overwhelming, even nightmarish, the newness of school might be for a kid. Nora’s fear for herself, however, is replaced with concern for her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) when she sees that in the hallways between classes and at recess, he is the chosen punching bag of a group of bullies.
When instructed by Abel to not tell their father or the teachers about his getting beat up every day, Nora is at a loss for how to help. With time, however, in between her growing accustomed to the routine of school – we see her honing her skills on a balance beam in gym, learning to fiercely kick her feet to stay afloat in swim class – Nora’s worry about her brother curdles into resentment because of Abel’s refusal to stand up for himself. Maya Vanderbeque’s performance goes from magnetic to revelatory as she inhabits Nora’s evolving headspace. As Abel, who undergoes a fascinating, shrewdly written transformation of his own, Günter Duret’s looks of defeat and resignation ring true, and are impressively affecting.
Wandel refrains from making didactic comments about bullying, instead concentrating on the emotional reality of children as they navigate dangerous and confusing social terrain. If the film’s climax comes off as a bit severe or pointed, it hardly undoes the marvel of “Playground’s” immersiveness.