A nightmare of childhood comes to vivid fly-on-a-wall life in “Playground,” a candid and wrenching account of childhood bullying from writer-director Laura Wandel.
In 72 hellish, sometimes heartbreaking minutes, this Belgian film — shortlisted for Best International Feature at the Oscars — lays bare the Darwinian laws of recess and its impact on victims, bystanders and the teachers and school administrators, seemingly helpless to cope with the cruel rite of childhood, even when it involves a kid almost twice the size of his peers.
It begins with a warm embrace, tearful Nora — played by Maya Vanderbeque in a performance of open-hearted wonder — holding on to her reassuring older brother, Abel (Günter Duret). Saying goodbye to Dad (Karim Leklou) repeatedly is no help. She is all but inconsolable at the shock of this new thing — school.
Not to worry. Her big brother is there.”I’ll see you at break (recess),” he assures her (in French with English subtitles). But the point of “Playground” is that he cannot be there. Abel is small for his age, and a goon nearly twice his size has decided to pick on the weakest in the herd.
Abel has his own problems.
The fact that Nora tries to cling to Abel at recess and lunch, that she’s slow to make friends, just exacerbates the situation. The pitiless hazing grows worth, Nora sticks her nose in it and Abel has to fight on her behalf, too. He is overmatched.
His threats to his kid sister demand her silence. This is after she’s figured out that most of the teachers don’t care or are ineffectual at intervening.
Telling Dad can “only makes things worse,” Abel insists. Nora’s not blind. She sees that with her own eyes. Nothing is done with the bully Antoine except forcing a tepid apology out of him.
Wandel makes her debut feature tense and fraught with peril simply by neither over nor understating the problem. A big playground, where non-serious sand-tossing fights can break out at any moment, the harsh judgments of the mean girls at lunch, kids who gravitate to cruelty because they’ve never learned to be kind, that’s a lot for a teacher to monitor.
The veteran educators practically turn a blind eye. Only Nora’s younger teacher (Laura Verlinden) hears her and tries to reassure her that ratting out the bullies and protecting her tortured (head dunked in the toilet, stuffed into a dumpster) brother is something she should be doing.
The humiliated Abel just resents her for it. But as this goes on, the toll it takes on their relationship is nothing when compared to the permanent damage it may be doing to his psyche.
And this “just kids being kids” tormenting grows more violent and dangerous the longer it goes on. We fear for Nora, for Abel’s safety and for his mortal soul.
Wandel lets us overhear the misinformed gossip of kids, the “sick girl” who wound up buried beneath the sandbox, the judgment that “all footballers are racist” when the kid making that claim doesn’t understand the word, the “your dad doesn’t have a real job” stigma, the social shunning, name-calling and the childish lashing out in response.
“Playground” is so vividly-detailed that it could be triggering to anyone whose childhood wasn’t ideal. And even if you don’t get ugly flashbacks from it, you will marvel how any of us get through this hazing rite of passage without permanent scars or long-term psychotherapy.
Recess, we’re reminded, isn’t for the timid or faint of heart.
Rating: unrated, violence, bullying
Cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Simon Caudry, Larua Verlinden and Karim Leklou.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Laura Wandel. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:12