- Golden Globe Awards
2021’s Playground is an important film by talented Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel and marks her first feature-length movie.
From the first shot of the film, viewers are thrown headlong into the deep end of the painful issue of bullying in elementary schools. Tears stream from the eyes of seven-year-old Nora, played by the fantastic actress Maya Vanderbeque, as she begs her father (Karim Leklou) to stay home from school.
Nora has become aware of a violent campaign of bullying targeting older brother, Abel (Günter Duret). She wants to help but feels powerless to do so, especially as Abel, who has become resigned to his torment, makes her promise to not reveal his secret to anyone.
As the bullying escalates, threatening not only her brother’s emotional health but his life, Nora tells one of the teachers. When they fail to stop the violence, the child is left with no choice but to tell her father. His intervention, however, only makes things worse.
After having his head forced into a toilet, Abel takes out his repressed anger on Nora, blaming her sister for telling their dad. As her brother’s situation spreads throughout the school, bullying begins to target Nora. Her former playmates, mocking her for of her unemployed father, who lives on government assistance, and her pushover brother whose clothes have become stained from the toilet.
As cruelty is piled on, the child resorts to violence, lashing out at the world around her. At the same time, Able joins the bullies in tormenting a black student, latching on to him as a replacement victim. The events climax in a dramatic confrontation.
The film addresses the issue of bullying and violence in schools from the children’s perspective, a point of view reinforced by Wandel and cinematographer Frederic Noirhomme through the camera work. Shots are filmed from a child’s eye level seeing only what they would see. Adult characters are half-cropped out of the frame, their faces showing only when they crouch down Nora’s height. Shots of the young protagonist are close ups connecting her with audience. In contrast, the acts of violence she witnesses are distant, disconnected from her us.
Wandle expertly manages the film elements, the highlight of which were the performances of the child actors. Vanderbeque is a standout among the cast, her compelling portrayal of Nora enhancing the film and clearly indicating an enormous amount of talent and charisma.
“I announced an audition to choose the children, and I explained the events and situation to them,” Wandel says. “However, I never revealed the full scenario to them so as to let them improvise. That’s how every scene evolved. As for Nora, I chose her out of 200 children because I insisted on a strong and bold personality to the furthest extent, and she said that she would do her best in this film. Maya knew she was going to be Nora after she auditioned, and her performance sprouts from that strength.”
Playground premieres in Un Certain Regard section at the 46th Cannes film festival where it won a the FIPRESCI prize and was nominated for several others. The film is 74 minutes and is produced by Dragons Films and Lunanime.