SSometimes cinema is most powerful and captivating when stripped down to the bare essentials. Playground, the accomplished and uncomfortably powerful debut feature from Belgian writer-director Laura Wandel, is 72 minutes long, without a score and with a flexible, instinctive handheld camera that rarely leaves Nora’s face (Maya, seven, Vanderbeque, superb). It’s piercingly insightful without ever digging into the subject.
The film Nora’s well-meaning attempt to intervene when she sees her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) being targeted, exploring how bullying spreads like a stain through a community of primary and secondary schools; how the taint of victimization can outweigh the ties of friendship and family; and how doing the right thing can have a catastrophic effect.
Playgroundfrench title, A world, translates to “one world”, and the school is just that: the squat, blocky buildings and the treacherous strip of asphalt are a hostile, inescapable environment. There is no respite, neither for the audience nor for the children who find themselves excluded from the semi-wild pack dynamics of childhood.
Frédéric Noirhomme’s camera is almost a character in the story. It hovers at children’s eye level, sinewy in an unforgiving bluish and bruised color palette, only occasionally allowing an adult to fully concentrate. A friendly teacher (Laura Verlinden) is one; Nora and Abel’s father and, we assume, primary caregiver (Karim Leklou) is another. But the sound is equally impressive: with the camera locked on Nora’s watery saucer eyes, much of the tension is created, vividly, outside the frame. It is a remarkable achievement.