For most children, school is a frightening wilderness of social injustice and unchecked danger. With her first feature, Playground – part of last year’s Un Certain Regard lineup – Belgian filmmaker Laura Wandel captures this universal ordeal with a masterful sense of perspective and empathy.
As her dad (Karim Leklou) leaves her the gates of her new school, seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) tentatively makes her way across the grey playground, alone and just barely holding back tears. The camera sticks close by her from behind, the frame filled with her outsized backpack while the school yard is out of focus.
We are plunged into Nora’s perspective; teachers and supervisors are pairs of indistinct towering legs, while the older children are looming gangly creatures of arbitrary violence and cruelty. Playground never leaves the boundaries of the school, emphasising its monolithic inescapability. It’s a terrifying, disorienting world and a reminder of a universal experience that is all too forgotten in the rose-tinted remembrances of adulthood.
Nora’s older brother, Abel (Günter Duret) predictably wants nothing to do with her, not least because it makes him even more of a target for the bullies already giving him a hard time. Indeed, every time Nora tries to help him she just sets him up for increasing persecution, culminating in them trapping him in a bin. It is heartbreaking to witness not only Nora’s perilous naivety at the playground’s law of the jungle but also at Abel’s internalisation of its brutality. Both Vanderbeque and Duret give star turns here: utterly believable as brother and sister, each performance informs the other as they try to survive each day.
What really cuts deep, however, is the crushing familiarity of it all, from the arbitrary pointless cruelty to the voiceless frustration of powerlessness. The uselessness of the break time supervisors in effectively dealing with the bullies is as if Wandel has distilled the boiling frustration at hearing that famously worthless refrain to ‘just ignore them’. Mercifully, Nora’s class teacher has the sensitivity to notice that something is wrong; though as the school term drags on invariably even she leaves for another job, leaving Nora and Abel to fend for themselves.
Just as the camera rarely tilts up to escape its child’s perspective, so too do the film’s adults struggle to escape theirs; even Nora and Abel’s beleaguered, loving father can’t reach down to her level of understanding. So in the end, it is up to Nora and Abel to figure out together how to survive. The answer, of course, is compassion: expressed unconditionally and wordlessly in the film’s all too brief, tearful final moments.