A young girl’s reaction to an incident in her school playground begins a chain of events in Laura Wandel’s extraordinary feature directorial debut.
Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is attending a new school. Her father (Karim Leklou) comforts her while trying to encourage her to join her teacher, reminding her that everything will be alright because her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) is there. But things don’t turn out to be okay. A bully is harassing classmates and when Nora attempts to intervene, the knock-on effect proves devastating.
As harrowing as certain moments of Playground are, the film is a riveting experience. It plays out like an expertly constructed thriller with stakes that are, in the eyes of the children, unbearably high. Both Vanderbeque and Duret are superb as the siblings, their anguish all the more powerful for their inability, or fear, to articulate it. There is genuine affection between them, but it is often obscured by the trauma of daily life; even the most throwaway sleight feels purposed for maximum damage. Wandel and cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme keep the camera at Nora’s eye-level, ensuring we are immersed fully in her world.
People often recall school through the fuzzy gauze of nostalgia, forgetting the unthinking cruelty of children – some naturally gifted at meting out pain, while others mimic the tragedy of their home lives. Playground is riveting, succinct and a chilling argument in support of those who never saw the trials of school as the best days of their lives.