There was a popular book written in the late 1980s by Robert Fulghum named “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” It is filled with tried and true lessons about growing up: “Hold hands and stick together,” “play fair,” “look at yourself,” and other snippets of suggestions we learn about early in life but rarely follow. There are other things we are taught in school, however, that will not appear in books but are a perfect fit for Laura Wandel’s masterful first feature Playground (Un monde), Belgium’s submission to the 2022 Oscars for Best International Film. Among the advice the film gives is — dominate to avoid domination, be right and make others wrong, never show weakness, and most adults you look to for caring are interested in their own problems, not yours.
This advice was learned early by seven-year-old Nora in a remarkable first performance by Maya Vanderbeque, a shy and sensitive young girl struggling to fit into a rejecting environment in this deeply disturbing look at power relationships at a French grade school. Focusing on the environment where only the strongest or the most manipulative survive, Nora, who is fearfully left by her father (Karim Leklou, “The Stronghold”) on her first day, has to navigate strict rules that one dares not break, rules where everyone has a place in the hierarchy and, if you don’t know it, you will soon find out.
The film is subtitled “Un monde” which translates into “the world,” a reference to the fact that the playground is the only world that the viewer knows. Though it is a work of fiction, it feels like a documentary and may hit a responsive chord with those who have pushed away disturbing memories of their childhood. In this constraining environment, Nora’s older brother Abel (Günter Duret, “Working Girls”) is the subject of continuous bullying by other boys and who, because of his size and the number of aggressive bullies he has to deal with, is unable to defend himself from the relentless attacks and is too embarrassed to tell his father about the beatings.
Cinematographer Frédéric Noirhomme (“A Good Doctor”) shoots everything from the vantage point of the young children and we only see the adults as disembodied arms and legs when they stoop to speak to a child. Shot mostly in close-ups, the expressions on Nora’s face reveal more than could ever be spoken: Her fear, hurt, longing for friendship, and the slow loss of her innocence. There is no narrative flow, merely a collection of episodes that repeat themselves but with increasing urgency. Unable to get through to school officials who show little personal interest, Nora, unable to continue to bear the secret of her brother’s suffering, turns to her father who complains to school officials but achieves little beyond confronting the perpetrators obvious stonewalling.
Abel now feels that his sister has committed an act of betrayal and their relationship suffers, Nora receiving the worst of it as the school bullies turn on her. In this dog-eat-dog world, it becomes apparent that the bullied ultimately becomes the bully to achieve some imagined payback. Reminiscent of Kazakhstan director Emir Baigazin’s unforgettable “Harmony Lessons” in which a bullied student plots revenge on his tormentors, Playground is not an easy watch, yet it is a haunting and lyrical film that, even in its bleakest moments, conveys an unmistakable experience of light, a film that, while it mirrors an increasing cycle of violence in a society governed by the false notion of survival of the fittest, love remains present, buried but always ready to emerge.