“You know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world.”
– Elijah Price (Unbreakable, 2000)
Although the literal French translation for ‘playground’ is ‘aire de jeu’, Laura Wandel has chosen instead to title her film ‘un monde’ (a world) which seems wholly intentional on the part of the Belgian director to suggest the school playground is everything to us as children.
It also suggests that although we get older and take on more responsibility for the direction of our lives, the playground and its laws of social inclusion/exclusion continues to follow us, often casting a long shadow that is hard to escape. The need to belong applies as much to the workplace as it does to a political party we support, and being left out, sidelined or marginalised from any group or community can feel as cruel at the age of 47 as it did at seven.
Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) are the children navigating a new school term, which will test their bonds of loyalty as Abel quickly succumbs to bullying and Nora struggles with her conscience. At first the two are inseparable as Nora tearfully hugs her brother tight in the playground while he reassures her that things will be ok, but her need to stay close to Abel causes the playground bullies to target him, and so begins a spiral of events that push the siblings apart with destructive consequences.
Abel will see Nora as the cause of his torment and will distance himself from her, imploring her not to tell anyone about what is going on. While Nora quickly gains a confidence and independence after she can no longer rely on Abel, things become more complicated for her when, after a particularly brutal beating, she informs their father about the bullying – making things worse still for Abel and consequently filling her with even more guilt.
Nora’s inability to control the situation, her feelings of rejection by Abel and the knock-on effects this all has to her own social inclusion throws the youngster into a whole world of uncertainty, and the scenes of Nora seeking silence underwater at swimming lessons or stumbling around with a blindfold while playing tag profoundly illustrate her dilemma.
What the film does so well is to follow the chain of events with very little melodrama, opting for a diegetic soundtrack filled with the chaotic noise of the playground and the tortured silences of children and adults who often don’t know what to say or do when things go horribly wrong.
As with Schultz’s cartoon strip Peanuts, everything that happens in the film is at a child’s level with adults only figuring from the waist down, often disembodied voices of authority attempting to assert control while the children muddle through their complex emotions.
The film doesn’t shy away from the cruelty of human behaviour, and anyone who has been at the receiving end of a playground tormentor will testify to just how cruel children can be. What we also see is how the act of bullying creates its own cycle of persecution, where the pain of rejection and the need to fit in at any cost can push children to do horrible things.
But ultimately this is a story of hope and a reminder that while we all, at any age, make mistakes, a small act of kindness or love can be the redemptive trigger to reconnect with our humanity.
Playground (Un Monde) is released in UK cinemas April 22nd.