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CANNES 2021 Un Certain Regard

Review: Playground


- CANNES 2021: Filmed from a child’s perspective, Laura Wandel’s first feature is a moving, subtle yet incisive tale which impresses for its intense depiction of bullying at school

Review: Playground
Maya Vanderbeque in Playground

A little girl in tears, holding on tight to her father who is trying to reassure her at the school gates on the first day of primary school is a familiar thing in the world of children and their parents. But for Belgian filmmaker Laura Wandel, this scene is only the start, a backdrop and almost a red herring in her incredibly hard-hitting first feature film, which is anything but run-of-the-mill, instead exhibiting powerful originality in its use of reality. Indeed, by way of Playground [+see also:
interview: Laura Wandel
film profile
, which has rocketed into the 74th Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard selection, the director is taking her first steps in film with a captivating and intense exploration of the difficulties involved in finding one’s place and working out how to behave in a microcosm reflecting society, with all its group mentalities and bouts of nastiness which pass under the radars of surrounding adults.

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"You won’t always be able to rely on Abel to help you". Little Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) is discovering school, its rules, the tumult of the playground, learning to write, swimming lessons, and the need to fit in and make friends, accompanied by her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). But in no time at all, the latter finds himself in a fix, harassed by some of the bigger kids. How can she help him? What should she do? What should she say? And to whom? Trapped by the dictates of fraternal solidarity (Abel doesn’t want her to get involved or end up telling anyone about it), Nora grows increasingly worried, not least because things are getting worse. But the consequences of speaking out turn out to be equally calamitous…

When we talk about films from a child’s perspective, we don’t often mean it literally, but it is indeed from the height of little Nora that the director shoots this immersion into school life, lending the film incredible force, as every look and shiver given by the protagonist are felt on a strikingly authentic, emotional level by the audience. This ultra-realist approach, which borders on documentarian, perfectly conveys the many, fine nuances in this film exploring a very simple yet somewhat shocking subject. Well-intentioned adults who are woefully over-focused on their primary role within the school, and parents kept at bay on the outside (with Karim Leklou playing the part of the father) do their best (though often too late) to find solutions, but most of it escapes them and it’s the children themselves who must try to untangle the complicated knots of social pressures and relations. It’s an initiatory journey as seen from the inside, depicted head-on by a film which is totally out of the ordinary, but it’s also a difficult and emotionally charged task for tiny tots thrust out into the world, alone.

Playground is produced by Dragons Films and Lunanime, and sold worldwide by Indie Sales.

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(Translated from French)

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