Review by Sean Boelman
Laura Wandel’s taut directorial debut Playground was selected as the Belgian submission for the Academy Award for Best International Film, and it is understandable why. Although the film is undeniably quite simple, there’s a certain power and relatability to be found in this morality study.
The movie follows a girl in primary school who finds herself torn between her allegiances when she witnesses her older brother be the victim of severe bullying. It’s the type of tragic story that we see happen way too often, and the fact that Wandel is calling attention to it is certainly very admirable.
Clocking in at a mere seventy-two minutes, Wandel gets done what is necessary and then wraps everything up. She gets us invested in the story early on and keeps the tension and anxiety high. Even in the more mundane moments, Wandel manages to capture the fears one has in childhood quite well.
Yet Wandel doesn’t take the easy way out when it comes to discussing her themes. It’s easy to point a finger at the bully and say that what they are doing is wrong, and that’s because it is. But the film really explores the larger impact that bullying has, particularly on people other than the victim, which is something that isn’t often discussed.
The character development is admittedly one of the weaker aspects of the movie. The protagonists are stand-ins for the average child, not given much of an individualistic personality of their own. And the brother/sister dynamic which is meant to be the emotional crux of the conflict feels somewhat underwritten.
That said, the acting in the film is definitely something special. Both young actors who play the leads bring an extraordinary amount of emotion to the table, likely because the story is so impactful and relatable. Maya Vanderbeque, in particular, commands the screen in a way that someone her age should not be able to.
Wandel aims for a gritty style here, and it definitely pays off. The scenes of bullying play out in a way that makes them feel just as harrowing as watching an act of brutal violence, and that really helps get the main point across. Wandel is clearly trying to make her movie have the most guttural impact possible, and it works.
Playground is a very effective film, accomplishing exactly what filmmaker Laura Wandel sets out to do. It may not be particularly ground-breaking, but it explores its difficult themes with an uncommon level of empathy.
Playground screened at the 2021 Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.