Playground Movie Review

“Playground (Un Monde)”

Film Movement
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Laura Wandel
Screenwriter: Laura Wandel
Cast: Maya Vanderbeque, Günter Duret, Lena Girard Voss, Simon Caudry, Thao Maerten, James Sequy, Naël Ammama, Émile Salamone, Karim Leklou
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 4/5/22

Wasn’t former first lady Melania’s “Be Best” campaign a plea to stop bullying? Judging by the film “Playground,” she was no more successful in her job than her husband in his. Guns may be an American thing, but fists and pushing and screaming probably occur everywhere. Note that the original title of this Belgian drama is “Un monde.”

Nor does bullying occur only in tough neighborhoods. Parents and teachers, no matter how understanding and loving, cannot prevent it. Take a look at the adorable children expertly directed by the Belgian director Laura Wandel in her freshman offering. Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), a girl of about seven who is likely in second grade of a public school, is at first afraid to go when the school year opens. A new arrival whose family had just moved, she clings at first to her father (Karim Leklou) and then to her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). Upset by the chaos of the halls, she does eventually make some friends. We in the audience cannot help smile when we see a broad grin on her face for the first time, but not before a teacher insists that she sit not with her brother but with kids from her own class.

Tension erupts on the playground when Abel, who hangs out with a group of bullies, is himself tormented, but he insists that Nora not snitch. That’s not the schoolyard code of behavior. Teachers allegedly supervising arrive either too late or not at all, though in one case Abel and his tormentor are dressed down in the principal’s office where one lad is forced to apologize, and thereby a final peace treaty is signed. Not. What really happens is almost predictable. Abel himself picks on a weaker child, putting a plastic bag over his head, and Nora might as well have the letter “S” tattooed on her neck. Nobody likes a snitch.

As Nora, Maya Vanderbeque could not be better. The seven-year-old thesp can be seen also in “Was zählt” (What Counts) and as herself in the TV drama L’invité.” She exudes a roller coaster of emotions from crying to lighting up the room with her smile; from disgust and despair to anger at her brother, in one scene wishing he were dead. To her dad, who seems unemployed but takes time to visit the playground and to dress down a bully, she can be clinging and she can be dismissive. “Playground” avoids even a hint of “documentarianism,” coming across instead as a fleshed-out look at the variety of tensions facing kids when they should not have to suffer the torment of their peers and of those who are slightly older.

The Brussels-born director certainly has a way with this assortment of sprouts.

In French with English subtitles.

72 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A-
Overall – A-

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