Though the constant din of the school day is a crucial ingredient of Laura Wandel’s remarkable debut film Playground, it’s perhaps in its silences that it is most affecting. Bullied, frightened children find themselves unable to form words, whilst inept adults struggle to come up with solutions, leaving nauseous pauses that only invite further misery. It’s a bleak but profoundly real theme in a film that captures the horror of school in an emotionally harrowing and stylistically audacious way.
Wandel sets out her stall early with a shot that will likely have any parents in the audience bawling before the first minute is up. She focuses in on the weeping face of Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a seven year old Belgian girl saying goodbye to her dad (Karim Leklou) and older brother Abel (Gunter Duret) at the gates of her new school, desperately trying to delay going to her first lesson. When Nora does eventually get inside the school building, we stay with her perspective, a trick that Wandel keeps going throughout the entire film.
To immerse us in the worldview of a kid, Wandel never lets us leave the school grounds and keeps the camera at Nora’s eye level for the entire film. We never see anything she doesn’t see, playground dramas happening out of focus in the background and adults often reduced to just pairs of legs, their voices only coming from offscreen. This bold choice pays huge dividends, especially once Nora starts witnessing the bullying of Abel at break times. It’s horribly distressing watching these moments from her powerless perspective, especially as all her interventions – either running directly into the fray herself or getting adults involved – seem to either change nothing at all or actively make things worse.
Playground is a film with an eye on the darker nature of children, their lack of emotional control easily warping into cruelty (Nora finds it harder and harder to make friends herself, her classmates dismissing her as Abel’s social stock plummets ever lower). There’s not particularly a plot at play here, though the bullying of Abel does distinctly worsen, Wandel instead just showing us a few weeks in the life of an unhappy primary school kid and her reactions against her environment. It does mean Playground can be a little repetitive, but with its swift 72-minute runtime, this doesn’t matter much.
With this debut, Wandel has immediately proved herself a thrilling talent to watch, not just in her stylistic confidence but also in an ability to draw out an extraordinary child performance from Vanderbeque who is, at times, unbearably moving. She’s never less than utterly authentic and is bound to remind any audience member of at least one aspect of their own childhood – as well as the playground itself, Wandel spends much more time in Nora’s PE classes than her more academic ones, laser-guided to trigger some of your buried athletic traumas. It’s a remarkable piece of work that could only be achieved by a truly empathetic filmmaker, one who seems bound for even greater things to come.