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Playground (Un Monde)

Director – Laura Wandel – 2021 – Belgium – Cert. 15 – 72m

****1/2

A quiet, seven-year-old girl starts school and has to deal with the trauma of her older brother being bullied by bigger boys – out in cinemas on Friday, April 22nd

They hug in the playground before going in. It’s the first day of school for seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and she doesn’t want to be separated from her elder brother Abel (Günter Duret). When she’s pulled off him, she just wants to hug her dad (Karim Leklou) and doesn’t want him to leave. Eventualy, the kindly lady schoolteacher takes her firmly by the hand and walks her into the building. In class, she’s hesitant about speaking her name. At lunch, she’s not allowed to sit with her brother but must stay with the kids the same age as her.

In the playground, she approaches Abel, but he tells her to keep away as “we’re beating up the new kids with Antoine”. She blunders in anyway and sees him trying to defend her from the bullies. Later, witnessing an incident on the stairs, she reports that older boys are bullying her brother causing a teacher to intervene. He won’t tell the teacher what’s going on, believing that will only make things worse.

Things do indeed worsen for Abel. Antoine (Simon Caudry) and others repeatedly dunk Abel’s head in a toilet bowl, forcing the recalcitrant boy to tell a teacher “we had a water fight”. In a later incident, they lock him in a communal bin on the edge of the playground. After Nora has been in the health room having a grazed knee disinfected, the playground monitor won’t let her out to the bin (she doesn’t mention that she’s seen her brother being put inside it). She is both confused and upset by the situation.

By this time, Nora has attempted to distance herself from Abel, but it may be too late because the other girls in class don’t want to have anything to do with her on account of her brother. She denies that he IS her brother. Her friend (Lena Girard Voss) sticks up for her, but another classmate Victoire (Elsa Laforge) starts asking if her father, who hangs around the school during the day concerned for Abel, is a “scrounger”. Her dad later explains to her that he takes care of both kids full time. When Victoire refuses to give Nora a printed invite to her birthday party, Nora rips up the invites. Nora’s dad and Victoire’s concerned mum try and sort it out later.

Then Abel tries to get back into Antoine’s good books by helping him beat up another boy Ismael. Nora doesn’t rally know what to do, but sticks up for Ismael.

Writer-director Wandel shows the story from Nora’s perspective, charting the conflict between her faltering attempts at socialising with the girls in her class and finding herself the sister of a boy regarded by her peers as a scapegoat from whom they all want to steer clear. Child actress Vanderbeque does an extraordinary job of carrying the film, showing a growth from timidity into confidence even as she grapples with simple issues. “Why are they doing this,” she says a lot. The supporting kids are good too, but they aren’t given anything like as much to do. Using a mixture of rehearsal and improvisation, Wendel gets extraordinary performances out of all of them.

The adults – Nora and Abel’s dad, the lady teacher who supervises the playground, Victoire’s mum, the headmaster who asks Antoine and pals to apologise to Abel if if that’s going to solve anything, are seen as largely ineffectual. Only Nora’s teacher Mme Agnès (Laura Verlinden) really provides her with any real support, and towards the end she leaves to go to another school. Her replacement, unaware perhaps of recent events at the school, proves far less sympathetic.

Nora ultimately learns to take some degree of responsibility for all that’s gone on and the closing image suggests she may have found a way of resolving her disagreements with Abel. It’s a remarkable and engrossing piece, really getting under the skin of its young protagonist and her plight. It achieves more in its 70-odd minutes than many films do in a far longer length of time. It comes here with a BBFC 15, which I understand because this material is potentially quite upsetting, yet if I had a child that I thought was being bullied – or for that matter perpetrating bullying – I’d want to take them to see this and have a chat about it afterwards. That said, we adults were all kids once and the film is well worth seeing as an adult.

Playground is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 22nd.

Trailer:

2022

UK Cinemas: Friday, April 22nd

2021

London Film Festival

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