the most panic attack-inducing movie of the year

Laura Wandel’s Playground captures exactly what it feels like to be seven years old and start a new school, which is another way of saying it’s the most panic attack-inducing movie of the year. This little Belgian drama lasts a little over an hour, but within its neat margins a microcosm of fear, anxiety and sadness churns. (The original title is Un Monde – “A World”.) It begins with a young girl holding her older brother at the school gate, her eyes flashing with terror at the thought of what might lie beyond. Abandon all hope, you who enter here—until home time at any rate. You’ve seen Grange Hill. Welcome to Grange Hell.

Playground is Wandel’s first feature film and simple in many ways. It follows two siblings, Nora and Abel, during a few rough days in elementary school. The events it depicts are quite ordinary: bullying, sometimes serious and sometimes less so, and a handful of lower rites of passage. It starts without much beginning, ends without a clear end, and takes place entirely on school grounds.

His brilliance lies in his perspective. Crucially, the film is blessed with a heartbreakingly plausible lead role by nine-year-old Maya Vanderbeque: she portrays Nora, the film’s troubled young protagonist, with the kind of pristine psychological integrity that would make Daniel Day-Lewis drop his cobblestones. equipment. And Wandel responds to this by making the film’s own point of view unshakably faithful to that of Nora. The camera floats to her eyeline, exposing even the older pupils, and most adults appear to be little more than disembodied legs, like the maid in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. The sounds of the schoolyard – clattering footsteps, indistinct screams and screams – ring in our ears like the noise of a war zone.

The few glimpses of adult life are intentionally hard to decipher: Nora’s stay-at-home dad (Karim Leklou) is a sad hump who seems out of a job, and while his children’s somewhat shabby clothes and unwashed hair have their own subtle story, the details of the family situation are not disclosed. (No mother is mentioned.) Perhaps most horribly astute is Nora’s ongoing struggle to understand how responsible she is for everything that happens in this strange institution.

Unlike her closest male relatives, Nora is a natural problem solver. She makes friends quickly — a scene where she and her new classmates compare packed lunches is a joy — and when someone is surprised she can’t tie her shoelaces yet, she makes it a point to learn how. Likewise, when she sees her withdrawn older brother (Günter Duret, also excellent) being bullied by classmates, her first instinct is to intervene – she is not yet familiar with the code of Omertà stairwell.

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