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Playground — vérité Belgian marvel captures the dynamics of childhood

Playground, the vastly impressive debut feature of Belgian director Laura Wandel, was released there last year as Un monde, a world. Both end up meaning the same thing. The English title pinpoints where much of the film takes place; the French what it feels like for the brother and sister whose story it is. He is Abel (Günter Duret), a little older than seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque). She is newly arrived at their primary school, distraught not to be allowed to stay with him. Different rules apply here, she learns. Doubly so at break time, when Abel’s efforts to protect her from a bully make him the target instead.

The obvious forebears for Wandel’s handheld naturalism are another pair of Belgian siblings, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Rosetta, Two Days, One Night). But in corridors filled with a chaos of kids, her vérité is headier than that of the Dardennes’ austere morality tales. Many of us will find something wildly Proustian in the child’s-eye view the film spirits up. It only deepens the emotional impact as the bullying of Abel continues. For Nora, though, there is soon adjustment, a happy friendship group. Poor, haunted Abel is now an embarrassment, in fact. So go the dynamics of childhood. But what of the adults the camera also finds in the frame, too distracted to notice the coming crisis, not knowing how to respond when they do?

Dardennes aside, a useful reference might be Céline Sciamma’s 2021 masterwork Petite Maman. You could even call Playground a sadder social-realist companion to Sciamma’s magic-realist miniature. At 72 minutes, both films share precisely the same running time. Watch them back-to-back and an acquaintance stuck with The Batman would still be there another half an hour. But you will have seen by far the richer storytelling. Wandel’s film is too wrenching to be called a movie for children. But children would recognise the truth and the complexity of it, which is surely the highest praise.

★★★★★

In UK cinemas from April 22

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