A boy around nine and a girl around seven clutch each other on the asphalt. “Don’t worry,” says the elder to the younger, her cheeks striped with tears. They are a modern-day Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, the trees replaced with strangers, birdsong swapped for chaotic shrieks. Their father does not abandon them, but is forced to hand them over. “Monsieur, monsieur,” says a man offscreen. “Parents can no longer go in with their children.”

If the opening scene of Playground, Laura Wandel’s debut feature, summons Grimm-level dread for its protagonists, it is in the service of a much larger critique. Set in current-day Brussels, the film follows Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), an empathic first-grader timidly attempting to make friends at a brand new school — one where her brother, Abel (Günter Duret), soon becomes a pariah after a scuffle in her defense. On one level, Playground is a corrective on the limits of educational institutions as civilizing agents; on another, it is a trenchant, often poetic, film on the perilous stakes of childhood power plays. “School is the first time where you are confronted with all these social codes, and have to learn how to fit in this micro society,” Wandel asserted in an interview the day of her film’s New York debut. “This is where you build everything for your future life in terms of human behavior, an essential moment that defines who you’re going to be as an adult.” Titled Un Monde (“a world”) in French, the 70-minute drama brazenly enters a space where adults dare not trespass: the psychological — and physical — carnage wrought between children when grown-ups look the other way. 

“Tell us your name,” asks Madame Agnes as Nora stares at her desk. “Go on.” Throughout her first stumbling days, Nora is as emotionally precocious as she is verbally skittish — saying more with her sad blue eyes than most actors spout in a David Mamet play. Reflecting her limited range of vision, the camera remains low to the ground, capturing the visceral reality of someone under four feet tall for the entirety of the film. To be sure, these are not traditional point-of-view shots; rather, the lens looms hauntingly close to Nora — behind her ear, in front of her heart-shaped face.

Maya Vanderbeque in Playground

In many scenes, the camera height plays to feelings of abject helplessness. When Nora and then Abel are first accosted by an older boy at recess, we never see the face of their assailant; the camera hovers around the young man’s elbows as he pushes Nora by the back of her neck into a chain-link fence. We can’t see the bully’s face because Abel and Nora can’t. Size-wise, when a child fights another child, there is often even less justice than among two fully grown adults. A fifth grader can tower over a third-grader. A sapling can battle a burly oak. Wandel’s filming captures what she hoped to be “an immersive experience for the audience.”

Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme’s selective focus further blurs nearly anything beyond Nora’s immediate physical vicinity. It’s disorienting, and means that often we can’t tell one child — or adult — from another if they aren’t right in front of the lens. But what better way to reflect how small Nora must feel, how isolated from the rest of the knowable world? She is, self-consciously, behind in learning to count and read, and hasn’t yet learned to tie her shoes. In terms of impending emotional violence, the schoolmates in her foreground, middle ground, and background might as well be pocketing grenades. It is all Nora can do to maintain focus on her nearest surroundings, lest she stumble to the ground, as she does, with awful predictability, and in front of everyone, on a balance beam in the school gymnasium.

In addition to the shallow depth of field, the frame itself purposefully limits what we can perceive. “I wanted the spectator to experience Nora’s limited point of view,” said Wandel, “so that you can’t really apprehend everything. And that’s also where the sound takes on importance as another sense via which you feel things.” Whether the din of hallway banter or the thud of a ball kicked across the yard, what might cause harm shifts more quickly than Nora, or we, can predetermine. 

But the children are also not flat-out sadists; they cycle between cruelty and kindness as quickly as they change direction during their morning arm circles. Nor does Nora remain a pushover; she enjoys a good schoolyard sand fight, no matter the stinging grains in her eyes. She delights in a lunchtime guessing game involving half-eaten sandwiches. She can make a witty joke if she feels comfortable enough. She is, in other words, a typical introvert. But when she finally starts to make friends, these bonds are compromised by how swiftly — and irreversibly, it seems — Abel is disgraced as the school outcast. “Is it true your brother was stuck inside a trash can?” accuses Clémence (Lena Girard Voss), Nora’s fickle playmate. “I wouldn’t want a brother like that.”

Maya Vanderbeque in Playground

In her androgynous yellow t-shirts and short, ruffled hair, Nora unwittingly emasculates Abel whenever she tries to protect him. “When you hang around me, I get beaten up,” he jeers halfway through the film, shoving her shoulder. So, too, does Nora internalize the sexist rules of traditional parental duties. “If you had a real job, you wouldn’t visit during recess,” she tells her father at pick-up time. Her mom never shows in the film, a palpable absence never explained. (Wandel clarified, “I wanted to also confront my audience with their own prejudices about why no mother is involved.”)

The schoolyard and building serve as a breeding ground for the prejudices the children bring with them, baptism by fire for those who do not arrive with these biases. Before shooting, Wandel had a clear vision of the type of place she wanted to depict, scouting every public school in the Brussels area for a site that could evoke a prison, the corridors in which, as Wandel put it, “a child could get lost.”

For those who have been bullied as young children, and for those who have done the bullying, Playground reveals the degree to which the two are swings on the same shaky set. When an even smaller, more vulnerable boy shows up one day, Abel joins his former assailants in tormenting him. “Abel, why are you doing this?” Nora implores. “You’d rather it be me getting beat up?” he replies.

In Playground’s final scene, Nora and Abel again embrace — after narrowly skirting a brutal act as heinous as it is believable. Will they make it out of this savage fairy tale or get eaten alive — and who is responsible, in either case? Wandel’s poignant yet harrowing film forces us to reckon with our own roles as abettors of harm or experiences as victims, whether today or in the distant past. 

Playground, directed by Laura Wandel, is currently in theaters.

Eileen G’Sell

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with regular contributions to Hyperallergic, Reverse Shot, The Hopkins Review, and The Riverfront Times, among other publications. In 2019 she was nominated for the...