Playground

Directed by Laura Wandel
Film Movement
2021
72 Minutes
Belgium
French
Coming of Age, Drama
Not Rated

In this debut feature by writer-director Laura Wandel, the everyday reality of grade school is seen from a child's-eye-view as an obstacle course of degradation and abuse. Following 7-year-old Nora and her big brother Abel, we see Nora struggling to fit in before finding her place on the schoolyard. One day, she notices Abel being bullied by other kids, and though she rushes to protect him by warning their father, Abel forces her to remain silent, while he endures more humiliation and harassment by his peers. Transposing the gritty realism of such filmmakers as Jacques Audiard and the Dardennes Brothers to the inner world of kids, Wandel crafts an empathetic and visceral portrait of the cruelty of children, and the failure of adults to protect them. Shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best International Film.

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Reviews

  • "Critic's Pick! [A] perfect hour and 12 minutes....a knockout, as flawlessly constructed as it is harrowing. A work of striking integrity and force, Wandel is... telling a story that in its piercing, sensitive detail and life-shaping arc is as familiar as yours and mine."
    Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
  • "A must-see drama about school bullying. A sharply chiseled, wrenchingly observed first feature written and directed by Laura Wandel.... Vanderbeque gives what may be the most fully formed child performance in recent memory. "
    Justin Chang, Los Angeles Times
  • "A gut-punch of a film that is not so much a portrait of schoolyard bullying as it is a sensory immersion straight into the heart of children abusing other children physically and emotionally, Playground is a sit-up-and-take-notice blend of outstandingly natural performances enhanced by spot-on cinematic choices. Tough subject matter sensitively handled in this Cannes Un Certain Regard premiere distinguishes Belgian newcomer Laura Wandel as as a talent to watch."
    Lisa Nesselson, Screen Daily
  • "Director Laura Wandel’s début feature Playground (Une Monde, 2021), is a deeply unsettling story that offers no resolution. A visceral observation of bullying shot at the eye level of a seven-year-old, the film reminds us that the dark underbelly of educational idealism is a traumatic experience."
    Paul Risker, PopMatters
  • "With her stunning debut film Playground, Belgian newcomer Laura Wandel unlocks our memories through film. Playground is truly stunning in both its visual power and auditory submergence. Every frame, unlocking the vault of the school memories we keep firmly shut in our subconscious mind. This, in turn, creates an immersive, at times unnerving, and compelling slice of cinema. "
    Neil Baker, Cinerama Film Online
  • "Maya Vanderbeque is an incredible young actress."
    Elena Morgan, Jumpcut Online
  • "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"
    Fabien Lemercier, Cineuropa
  • "The film’s originality stems from its creative use of mix-and-match, taking a schoolyard tale and treating it with same hard-nosed intensity as Audiard’s prison thriller and a here-and-now visual immediacy more common to a war film. "
    Ben Croll, The Wrap
  • "Playground is practically an exercise in the use of off-camera space, and a masterful and refreshingly consistent one at that."
    Diego Semerene, Slant
  • "It's one of the year's boldest and best directorial debuts, in addition to being one of the most incisive films about how children experience bullying yet made."
    Alistair Ryder, View of the Arts
  • "Playground is a poignant portrait of the dynamics of fitting in and finding one’s place."
    Selina Sondermann, The Upcoming
  • "A brilliant debut feature.... Playground’s brilliance is in its simplicity and intimacy. As the tension mounts... Playground cements itself as one of the best films about early childhood I’ve seen."
    Danielle Measor, WeTalkFilm
  • "Wandel’s movie is immersive and bruising, full of empathy for its young characters, and unrelenting in its depiction of the challenges they face."
    Chloe Walker, Paste Magazine
  • "Wandel’s film burrows right into the mind of its characters, leaving you gasping for air."
    Ben Flanagan, In Review Online
  • "Laura Wandel’s refreshingly lean directorial debut captures the casual cruelty of youth free of sentimental embellishments, aided by a heartbreaking performance from young lead Maya Vanderbeque."
    Shaun Munro, Flickering Myth
  • "Wandel’s immersive, impressive debut is rigorous in its resolute focus on one little girl fighting a lonely, frightened battle for her future selfhood, in which what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the shape and measure of her developing soul. But out of focus, amid the background clamor, hover even larger, stranger and more fundamental questions, like how come school is the way it is, and why do we subject our children to it?"
    Jessica Kiang, Variety
  • "Belgian director Laura Wandel’s jarring debut feature plunges headlong into the world of school-aged children and observes their dynamics with chilling precision. It generously studies its subjects — children, bullying, adults confronting the implications of the latter — and extracts haunting conclusions about the Darwinian nature of ostensibly idyllic settings."
    Lovia Gyarkye, The Hollywood Reporter
  • "A gripping psychological drama... Vanderbeque's performance is transfixing."
    Jessica Kiang, Variety
  • "A remarkable examination of childhood, social belonging, and family ties—with implications outside of the school playground. Vanderbeque is never anything but absolutely convincing. Indeed, the film rests squarely on her shoulders. "
    Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, The Verdict
  • "Playground is bleak, bleak stuff. It’s also electrifying. As Nora, Vanderbeque is quite stunning from the film’s first heartbreaking frame to its last. The moral and emotional trap Nora finds herself in feels organic, perhaps because many of us will recognize it from our own lives. Playground is a tough watch, but it’s also an essential one."
    Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
  • "An arresting, eye-opening look at how violence begins at an early age, and how we can learn to be bystanders, or have the strength to speak out."
    Susannah Gruder, IndieWire