When one thinks of a playground, it almost immediately evokes images of slides, sand pits, and long lost childhood friendships. However, Laura Wandel’s Playground (Belgium’s Oscar entry this year) demonstrates that this environment is ground zero for every element of our developed, adult society.
The very first shot of Playground is 7-year old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) clutching her father, crying as she tries to avoid going to grade school for the first time. Up to this point in her life, her older brother Abel (Günter Duret), and her father are the only two individuals she interacts with; her sense of self is inexplicably tied to her family.
In that connotation, the school system is a second birth of sorts for Nora. It is in this academic environment where her independence, habits, and personality will begin to form. What little knowledge Nora, and every other first-time incoming student, possess will disseminate to their peers and form new thoughts and ideals in the process. Wandel understands that while the household is the first learning space, it is in the public sphere where we truly find our individuality.
While the classroom grows one’s intellect, it is the playground that stands at the basis of prepubescent society and develops one’s character. While many have explored this environment before, almost no one has ever captured the baffling casual cruelty of children like Wandel.
The jungle gym landscape is a brightly covered wasteland, with kids throwing sand and literally suffocating one another. There’s even a class system put into place based on grade level and physical superiority. It’s a world of bullying that compels one to want to help these children, but the audience is as helpless as Nora’s father; we can only watch the chaos and hope that our youth will rise above it.
In fact, adults have barely a passing presence in Playground. These authority figures are nearly always out of focus or obscured, like the parents in a Peanuts cartoons. It’s a subtle but powerful decision that truly puts the viewer in the shoes of a young child and acts as a reminder that even as adolescents, we alone have the power to change our environment.
The sound design also works impeccably to immerse the viewer into Nora’s world. The cacophony of screaming children purposely makes it challenging to focus on a specific playground interaction. At several moments throughout the film though, an audible “Help!” briefly rises above all the noise, only to fade out seconds later. Wandel’s decision to not explore these cries is emblematic of the insurmountable challenge of stopping bullying: Even when one issue (like Nora and Abel’s) is addressed, so many others go unnoticed.
In short, Playground transports you back to a world that is simultaneously simpler and more barbaric than adulthood: A place where gym class, recess, and even writing one’s own name is anxiety-inducing. If we can understand our children as well as Wandel seems to, there may be an opportunity to enrich this generation more than the last.
The Silver Lining
Maya Vanderbeque challenges the talents of those twice her age in her on screen debut as Nora. From the first frame she’s on screen, Vanderbeque radiates a kind of innocent helplessness that typically eludes young performers.
Playground is coming soon to a theater near you.