London Film Festival 2021: Playground Review

The next film I watched at the London Film Festival on BFI Player is another foreign language film. Based on what I’d read about it, I thought that Playground would make an interesting choice for a film to watch and I have to say that this is one of the most brutal and hard hitting films I’ve seen in a long time.

The film follows Nora, a girl just starting primary school who sees that her brother, Abel, is getting bullied by older kids. After attempting to intervene, the situation gets worse, with Abel not wanting to get any adults involved out of feat that this will exacerbate the bullying leading to growing difficulties for Nora. As I said at the start, this is not an easy film to watch. It does not shy away from how brutal the bullying of Abel gets and the serious damage that is done to him as a result. We see how Abel goes darker as a result of the bullying and how this darkness causes damage to Nora. The film also does a good job at showing how Nora is affected by the bullying, both directly, with the risk of her being the target of bullying, but also with how her brother’s reputation impacts her and how she is perceived by the other students. Through this, the film shows the cruelty and changing social hierarchies of school effectively, along with how ineffective the school authorities are at stopping the bullying, helping to demonstrate the power of the film. I also liked how the film took more of a slice of life approach to Nora’s time at school. We do see the brutality of the bullying, but also smaller moments like the classes she has, games she plays with the friends she makes, learning how to tie her shoes and swim. These moments help to make this feel like a lived in world and provide much needed levity and balance to the darkness of the film, helping to add to the film’s power.

The performances as well are uniformly excellent. The role of Nora is a difficult one for a young actor to play but Maya Vanderbeque plays it pretty much perfectly. She effectively shows her own concern for her brother and how the bullying is causing harm to her, along with how the comments from the other children are causing issues with her, but always lets us know that Nora is a child and shows the balancing act of emotions that Nora has to go through all the time. Günter Duret meanwhile is strong as Abel, showing the act he puts on to hide the damage that is being done to him by the bullying and the stubbornness he has in not wanting anyone to know about what is happening to him, showing him being resigned to the fact that nothing can really be done to help. As the film goes on, he shows how broken he is and how the darker aspects of his personality come up as a defence mechanism, with Abel doing some horrible acts at the ending, but ones that feel believable for the character. The other performances add to the power of the film, helping to demonstrate how the social structure works at the school effectively.

Technically the film is very impressive. Director Laura Wandel and DP Frédéric Noirhomme make the smart decision to have the camera focused on Nora for the entire film, framing her in close up and keeping the camera at her eye level. Through this, we see how the adults in the film have this feeling of being outsiders through how little they are in the frame, along with showing the bullying in the background, helping to put us in Nora’s mindset of wanting to avoid seeing what is being done to her brother but knowing it is going on. This, along with the drab production design, helps to create an oppressive and claustrophobic quality tot he film, making the school feel more like a prison, with this also being helped by there being no scenes outside of the school, showing how the school is a closed ecosystem.

Overall, I found Playground to be a brutal and uncompromising film. It does a great job at showing the damage that is done to children by bullying and how all of the elements of school life can cause intense psychological harm to children when not properly addressed and how insular school life is. It is not an easy watch, but I think this is an incredibly powerful film.

My Rating: 4.5/5

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