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Playground review – an impressive debut that’s too bleak for its own good

A remarkable lead turn make this bullying drama worth seeing, even as it gets caught awkwardly between social realism and allegory

There is a somewhat unconvincing miserablist streak in this otherwise well-made and well-acted drama from debut filmmaker Laura Wandel, which casts a seemingly normal Belgian playground as a dog-eat-dog stage of relentless terror and abuse. The playground has been utilised by countless filmmakers as a microcosm of the cruel world at large, and Wandel's film follows suit: here we witness it as a Darwinian jungle where even the adults are inclined to turn a blind eye in order to make their lives easier.

Playground begins with siblings Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and Abel (Günter Duret) arriving at school; Abel is returning after the summer break, while Nora is just starting out. The same day, Nora witnesses her brother being bullied and tries to intervene, though her attempt to help out only makes matters worse. When she later decides to confide in a teacher – one of many who appear largely indifferent to their pupils' suffering – about the abuse, it triggers a series of increasingly disturbing events.

But the excessive pile on of misery quickly begins to feel less like real life and more like a device used to batter us with the same point for 72 minutes straight. As the playground takes on the air of a prison courtyard, the film gets lost somewhere between social realist drama and something more allegorical without finding the strengths of either approach. Are we meant to be seeing the playground as it “feels” to our young protagonists, or taking this all literally? A disconnect of styles makes it unclear.

The film is bolstered by its young cast, who deliver remarkable, naturalistic performances, putting their often cutesy and over-egged Hollywood equivalents to shame. Vanderbeque, especially, is a revelation, creating a young person of real depth, both righteous and naive, prone to the kind of contradictions rarely afforded to child characters. At just seven-years-old, it's a performance that feels entirely lived-in, her sad, lost and frustrated facial expressions fit to rival those of Antoine Doinel, wayward protagonist of Truffaut's coming-of-age classic 500 Blows. The film is worth watching just to see her acting – though “acting” feels like the wrong word.

With impressive, low-level camerawork and a clear skill with wrangling young actors, there's no denying Wandel's talent as a filmmaker, yet Playground never quite earns the bleakness of its premise. If the take home here is that the playground – and therefore life – is something to be endured and survived, it's a feeling that eventually comes to define the viewing experience itself, for better or worse.

Playground is released in UK cinemas from 22 April.

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