A note in advance: This will likely be one of the longest reviews I’ve ever written, if not THE longest. Part of that is because this is something of a double feature critique. But more importantly, there’s some major heavy stuff that I’m going to talk about here that you may not be comfortable with. If you’re not down for that, I truly understand. Consider this something of a Trigger Warning, and if you want to avoid the darker, more personal material, I suggest that once you hit the first image break in this review, skip all the way down to the third. For all those willing to take the ride, strap in.
Two years ago, when I compiled my personal list of the Top 100 Films of the 2010s, I mentioned in the entry for 12 Years a Slave that it was a movie that I never have to see again, because it was the first time I ever felt like a cinematic experience was traumatizing. It’s one of the most essential stories ever put to celluloid, filled with tremendous acting, gripping story, and one of the most visceral depictions of American slavery ever made. And it hurt to watch. It was truly an ordeal to sit through it, but it was a necessary one that marked the next step in what film could be as an educational tool. And it’s still baffling to me that it almost lost Best Picture to fucking Gravity. I mean had that travesty come to pass, it would have likely been a symbolic microcosm of everything wrong with race relations in this country. A bunch of so-called progressives giving top honors to an unqualified white lady who gets everyone else killed in space instead the most raw dramatization of America’s Original Sin? It would have been poetic and sickening in equal measure.
Anyway, the point is that 12 Years a Slave is a movie that I could see again, but not one I ever need to, because the images are forever seared into my brain. I could almost play the entirety of certain scenes, like Lupita Nyong’o tied to the whipping post, shot for shot in my head. That’s how unflinching Steve McQueen was in his directing, and how vivid the visuals were to me.
That sort of triggering feeling played on repeat in my head while watching Playground, the Oscar submission from Belgium, which made the shortlist for International Feature, but was ultimately not nominated. It wasn’t the exact same emotion as 12 Years a Slave, however. That film was about witnessing something traumatic, whereas this film felt like reliving past darkness in a very direct way. In a scant 70 minutes, barely over an hour, debut director Laura Wandel delivers a uniquely powerful vision of childhood adversity that hit me so deeply and completely that I admit it’s hard for me to look at it objectively.
In the most basic terms of story, the film centers on seven-year-old Nora, starting her first day of primary school when things get started. Played by Maya Vanderbeque, Nora is frightened beyond measure to be stepping into this larger, confusing world. The movie opens with her tearfully clinging to her brother, Abel (Günter Duret) and father (Karim Leklou) for several moments and late, alternating hugs before she’s ushered inside, assured by family and the staff that everything will be alright and she’ll make lots of new friends.
The entire film is shot from a third-person perspective relative to Nora’s level, with all the other characters entering and leaving the frame in relation to her movements. We only see the faces and forms of adults and taller children if she tilts her head up to look at them, or if they lower themselves down to make eye contact, usually her father or her first homeroom teacher, Madame Agnes (Laura Verlinden). Indeed it becomes a symbolic through line of the film that those willing to act with a modicum of empathy will get down to Nora’s level while those who aren’t force her to look up to acknowledge them. Nearly every scene is a sensory overload of light and sound, a cacophonous din that only starts to subside as Nora herself gets used to it (the film seemingly takes place over several weeks, if not months, though there’s no stated timeline).
Before going inside, Abel had promised to spend break times with Nora, so in her insecurity, she tries to have him make good on his word. At lunch, she tries to sit at his table, but the teachers send her back to the tables being used by her class, leaving her even more nervous and unable to eat. At recess, she sees Abel with some bigger kids, and he sends her away, telling her that they — the big ones — are beating up new kids, so she needs to stay out of their way. When she refuses, the bullies pin her against a wall, forcing Abel’s hand (he was playing along before, but not with any enthusiasm) to go in and defend his sister. This gets her released, but the bullies then turn on Abel, beginning a lengthy process of making his life a living Hell.
It’s a brilliant and devastating setup that Wandel gives us here. Throughout the first 10 minutes, Nora’s deep fear of not being accepted, of being isolated and alone, looks like it’s preparing us for her to become a quick victim once the sharks perceive weakness. There’s even a scene right before her first gym class where she can’t properly tie her shoelaces, and you can see her neighboring classmates notice this then talk to others. This must surely be the moment. Anyone who’s been bullied recognizes what’s coming: the minor, completely innocuous sin that you unknowingly commit that sets you apart, making you a target.
Wandel instead turns that expectation on its ear, as later those same girls teach Nora how to do her laces as a means to become friends, and instead it’s Abel — whose name cannot be an accident — sacrificed on the altar of the schoolyard pecking order for daring to come to his sister’s aid and do what any big brother should do. It isn’t until much later, when Nora feels secure in her position, that she too becomes a target, but only as collateral damage to her brother, guilty by association, when the escalating violence against Abel leads to rumors about home life that lump her in. She ends up shunning her own blood, openly denouncing him, and driving him to become a bully himself for his own survival. She thinks all of this will allow her to maintain whatever tenuous position she has, but of course it doesn’t, and her misery ends up equaling Abel’s, although from a completely different angle as she becomes the unwilling conduit between well-meaning but ineffectual adults and fickle yet mercilessly cruel children. It’s a tragedy that can only be redeemed by recommitting to one another, becoming their support even if means social suicide.
This shook me. I mean, it really shook me, deep in my core. Forgive me for engaging in some anti-nostalgia, but it’s crucial to process this as honestly as possible, because Wandel depicts this horrible truth as flawlessly as humanly possible, so that people will have the needed conversations to stop future victimization. I’ve made a point as an adult to be as open about what happened to me — and what I did to others — as I possibly can, both as a means of coping and hopefully finding ways to prevent it from happening to any kids in my life, including my nephew, who himself will be entering school in a couple of years.
My unforgivable transgression happened when I was in second grade. While we were sitting on the classroom carpet watching a video, one of the other kids picked his nose and rubbed it on my pants. Once we went back to our seats, I found the booger, got grossed out, and when I was told who did it (the kid whose desk was two over from mine), I playfully shook him on his shoulders while asking for a tissue to wipe it off. The teacher thought I was throttling him and trying to choke him, and thinking back, it was an easy mistake to make if you looked at it from the wrong angle. She brought us both to the front of the classroom to explain ourselves. She asked how I knew the booger wasn’t my own, as she knew that plenty of kids in the class picked their noses, myself included. I told her it couldn’t have been me because I never wipe boogers on my clothes. She followed up by asking what I did do with them — a question that had no possibility of a good answer — but me being an ignorant kid, without hesitation, I opened my mouth and pointed to it, a nonverbal confession that I ate them. Again, nearly EVERYONE in the class did that, but I was the first one — and only one — dumb enough to admit it, and I did it in a way that I guess made it seem like I was proud of it. The entire class collectively screamed, “EWWWW!” and from that moment, my school life was over for years to come.
I wasn’t exactly the most popular kid, but I had no enemies. I never got picked last for teams in gym class or recess. I never got into fights. There was even a girl or two who had childhood crushes on me (mostly friends of my sister through her Girl Scout troop). The instant I pointed at my open mouth, that all ended. I was “Billy the Booger” forever after that. Every time I pled with one of my classmates to admit they had the same gross but common habit as me, they vehemently denied it, often accompanied by a punch to the head or stomach. People actively ran away from me on the playground as if I carried a plague, only coming near me in groups to pound me into oblivion. The rare time the other kids invited me to play with them, it was usually in some scenario where they were the heroes of some pop culture we were all into and I was the villain, which gave them license to “pretend” beat me up in the name of the storyline. The most common was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where I was always Krang (a disgusting parasitic brain that looked like a gob of snot depending on who was animating him in a particular episode), and the awesome “Turtles” would gang up, pin me to the ground, and occasionally give me a concussion by knocking my head into the blacktop pavement. If there was some kind of sport, I was only allowed to join if there was an opportunity to pelt me with various equipment, typically kick or tennis balls.
This cycle continued on for years in various forms, and many of the scenes in Playground either paralleled or outright recreated those moments. Madame Agnes tries to help Abel and Nora, but other teachers are basically numb to all the bullying, having seen so much of it over the years, and barely offer anything other than stern words that the offenders know are empty. That definitely happened to me. For years the teachers who gave a damn could only encourage me to “ignore” my tormenters, saying that they only target me because I respond to it, though they never bothered to teach me how to ignore them, how to cut through the onslaught of noise and threats from all sides and reach that zen-like state where it didn’t register. This is also reflected in the movie, as Abel is eventually made to sit next to Nora at lunch, so his bullies simply follow and taunt him at another table, bringing Nora into the mix, and no matter how much they try to ignore it and eat their sandwiches, the words never stop, and eventually are amplified by Nora’s classmates joining in.
The staff only truly gets involved when the bullying gets so bad that three of them literally pick Abel up and throw him in a dumpster, then shake it violently for the entire recess period. Only Nora notices, and action is only taken when she sheepishly tells her father and Madame Agnes. Even then, it’s just performative discipline where the bullies are made to apologize and shake Abel’s hands as if the matter is settled. For me, administration only got involved when it got to the point that suicide became a viable option for me. I told one of my only friends, and he rightly told the first teacher he could find. I ended up in therapy for the summer, but it saved my life. My mother and grandmother felt destroyed, and the school finally saw fit to step up enforcement of anti-bullying policies, including detentions and suspensions for instigators (they used to have a trick of surrounding me and encroaching until I felt threatened enough to throw the first punch in self-defense, which meant that I was the guilty party), and enough recess supervision to prevent most incidents. They also keyed in on me and told others to leave me alone if they said anything remotely untoward. That ended up engendering more resentment towards me because I basically needed a permanent protection unit, but it was better than the previous alternative, which was a brief scolding by the principal and a handshake declaration that we were all somehow friends now.
There’s a heartbreaking sequence of scenes where one of Nora’s classmates is about to have a birthday party, and she can invite the whole class, plus some others. Nora asks if her brother can come as well, because she knows he needs the morale boost, and initially he’s allowed. Later, when the actual invitations are being handed out, Nora is intentionally passed over. Same thing happened to me, to an extent. In fifth grade, a girl I liked was going to have a birthday party late in the year (early June), and she had a pool, so it was going to be awesome. I walked into the classroom that morning to find an invitation on every single desk, except mine. This one I was at least able to turn to my advantage, as when we were lining up to go to art or music class, she gathered up the ones for kids who were absent or hadn’t picked them up, and handed them out. I somewhat snidely asked whether or not I’d get one, and with the teacher watching, I could tell she was in that instant shamed just enough to give me one. I ended up getting her a present she really liked, and I had fun at the party, to the point that her parents called my mom to invite me over for other occasions, but I couldn’t go because that was the same summer I spent in day programs and family therapy. I never really became friends with the girl, but I was able to make a positive enough impression that for the next few years (the remainder of the time that I lived in the district) whenever she saw people giving me a hard time, she’d at least say something like, “Leave him be, he’s not that bad” or “He’s not even doing anything to you, just leave him alone” in that tone of voice that couched her sticking her neck out for me in an air of “I’m so over this, let’s just do something else.” Hey, small victories.
Towards the end, there are scenes where Abel, in his attempt to save face, starts bullying another kid named Ismaël (Naël Ammama), because as many of us know all too well, you can re-establish yourself in the food chain by taking advantage of someone even weaker. I only did this once, and I instantly regretted it. His name was Steven, and he was a nerdy-looking kid with thick glasses and a rather oblong-shaped head. His cruel nickname, “Egghead,” was sadly, anatomically accurate back then. One day on the playground, under heavy peer pressure, I slugged him one just to claim some kind of win. He didn’t cry, but merely looked at me in a mournful way because he knew what I was doing. The next day I apologized profusely and we became friends. I promised him, and myself, that I was never going to subject another kid to the same pain I was going through. In seventh grade, I got into an argument with another kid that led to a chase through the classroom, and as I wound up to hit him, he ducked and I hit the teacher instead. I was given the option of both of us being suspended — he as the aggressor, me as the assailant — or neither of us facing any discipline on the condition that we set our differences aside. I chose the latter. Again, we eventually became friends, mostly because I bailed him out. After that day, I never threw another punch in anger again. I got in one more fight a year later where it was more just a wrestling scrum, and I took self-defense classes in college that required learning the ability to punch, but that’s it. I even eventually learned how to preempt bullying by making fun of myself before others got the chance. If I was self-deprecating, people only had two options: either join me in the laugh, thus becoming my friend; or pity me, thus becoming my friend or leaving me alone.
When I moved to upstate New York for high school, I got a social reset button, and a chance to redefine myself. I was largely successful, in that I had my own small clique of friends, and only a couple of minor foes, and they were mostly agreed upon by all to be assholes. I still wasn’t popular. I never got invited to the typical high school parties with the jocks and cheerleaders (my circle of friends instead opting for Moose Lodge dances and “Dungeons and Dragons” sleepover campaigns, which are their own awesome levels of fun), but they had my back in those rare situations where I found myself in a rough position. Good enough.
The one exception to that was my rat tail, which I began growing that oh so lovely summer. My mom let me have it, partially to just give me a bit of happiness in a dark time. But she made me promise to keep it until graduation, as a lesson about following fads (rat tails literally being trendy for that one year only). I kept my word, and I told anyone who cared to know why I had it. The day before graduation, I got to make a little show out of my music teacher getting the honor of officially cutting it. My mom still has it in a box to this day, and I’ve never been able to prove that she didn’t use it for voodoo. And for what it’s worth, she told me years later that I could have cut it at any point if I really wanted to, but deep down I kind of saw it as a badge of honor, and a statement of individuality. The damn thing was all the way down to the small of my back when it was finally cut.
Still, there were a few fellow students who thought I should be made an example of for daring to look different, and there were several attempts over the years to either cut it or burn it off with a lighter. The opening night of my junior year fall play — when I finally had the lead — a couple of them conducted a poll of the rest of the cast as to whether or not I should be pinned down and have it forcibly removed. I was livid, especially since the only consolation I got was that the vote failed (the point that it should have never been an option to commit felony assault being missed entirely by all involved), but since my character was a brooding, misunderstood punk teen, I ended up giving a convincing performance in my anger. Silver linings and all that.
I bring this anecdote up because the last disturbing parallel in Playground is how badly Nora is caught in the middle of all of this. She’s the observer to her brother’s torture, trying to do her best to stand by him, knowing that it was in saving her that he ended up in this position. But it eventually becomes too much, and even she turns on him because of the effect his situation is having on her, when all either tried to do was help the other.
This made me think of my own sister. There were conversations we had as kids — angry, melodramatic, hormone-driven conversations — that basically boiled down to her exclaiming, “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be the sister of the kid with the rat tail?” or in earlier context, “How do you think it makes me feel to be the booger-eater’s sister?” That made me feel even worse, because while I was so caught up in my own shit, I didn’t even realize that she was being victimized as a bystander. There was one brief incident in fifth grade where my mom made me walk her into the school one day, holding hands, and the cruel rumor mill/fucked up game of “Telephone” that was intermediate school converted that innocent act into me French kissing her by the end of the day and full-on incest by the end of the week. She had to make a show of hating me in public just to save herself, and I couldn’t exactly blame her. I didn’t want to drag her down with me, especially when that drag was completely involuntary.
We’re so much closer now than we were back then, and we’ve spent years having frank conversations about these things as a means of healing and becoming better people. I learned that she would mock me to my face but would defend me in private any chance she got. She silently begged me to just hide myself away, thinking that I had to be at least partly responsible for what was happening to me, because what other logical explanation could there be for why it was happening so often? In doing so she kept her own quirks hidden from all but her closest friends, even though it hurt her personally and gave her a different set of stressors, and despite the fact that her quirks are what make her the awesome person and mom that she is. It took a lot of years to get over all of this. Poor Nora only has an hour of screen time to try to figure all of this out.
I’m sorry for making you read the darkest chapters of my life story, but as I said, it’s a necessary context to understand how a film so expertly made could feel like transporting back to those exact moments of my childhood. This movie is much more of an experience than a story, and Wandel taking it completely from Nora’s point of view is a novel, visceral, and utterly gut-wrenching necessity to ensure it resonates the way it’s intended to.
Because the movie is so short — again just over an hour — the theatre where I saw it presented it in a rather clever way, by leading in with a screening of one of this year’s nominated Documentary Shorts, a film called When We Were Bullies. I’ll delve into more detail when I cover the category later on in the Oscar Blitz, but essentially, it’s about a series of coincidences that leads a filmmaker to recall an incident from more than 50 years ago where he participated in an act of bullying with his entire fifth grade class against one kid, and his mission to track down as much information about that day as possible so that all involved can process their own memories and guilt, and contextualize it within the larger issue of bullying and how it affects people later in life.
It was rather ingenious to put these two together, as the short acts as retroactive catharsis for the main feature. It has a hopeful message, but more importantly, it mentally prepares the audience for what’s about to come in Playground. By showing you a story about trying to piece together childhood trauma, it subliminally sets the tone and allows you to steel yourself in your mind in case you’re like me and the scenes in the feature trigger painful memories. It certainly helped, because while I watched this prepubescent carnage unfold, I was able to remind myself that despite everything I went through, I came out on the other side a better, happier person, much more able to cope with things than I was back then.
As filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt notes in When We Were Bullies, when you’re a kid going through that, you feel like it’s never going to end, and that’s 100% true. Because you have no frame of reference for a life beyond childhood aside from your immediate family and your teachers, it’s all but impossible to imagine a life where the torment ends. And in one of the more poignant and honest scenes of Playground, Madame Agnes admits that sometimes teachers don’t put a stop to the problem because they simply don’t know how. It’s that inability to see the end of the tunnel that eventually drove me to the edge at age 10 (and also why I weep for anyone who doesn’t make it back), but it’s also the fact that I am through it that allows me to discuss it now, and even joke about it to varying degrees of appropriateness.
To think that a movie that barely lasts an hour could encapsulate years of trauma so well. Bullying has been a common theme in films forever. You see it in Stephen King adaptations like It, where it’s portrayed to the most violent extremes. It shows up in beloved classics like Rebel Without a Cause, where it’s seen as something of a rite of passage. Hell, it’s even found in lighthearted kiddie cartoons like Ron’s Gone Wrong, where it’s completely played for laughs. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and while I almost always make a mental comparison to what I endured as a kid, it’s mostly a passing memory that only has a surface relation to what’s on the screen. Watching Playground, on the other hand, really did make me feel like I was back on that asphalt crucible of social Darwinism, and while it’s hard to relive, it’s essential to do so to keep reminding oneself how important it is to prevent future trauma.
A film like 12 Years a Slave was about showing the world an open wound and pouring salt in for good measure to make sure we never forget where we came from. Because of that, the lesson is learned and I never feel the need to see it again. Playground, on the other hand, reopens the wounds so it can provide the means to heal them more permanently. While triggering, this is a film I can watch over and over again, and one I would encourage everyone to see, especially if you’ve got kids of your own. While it’s horrifying at times, they need to see it too — ideally both the feature and the short together — and they need loving, caring people willing to tell them that this is they type of stuff that they need to be aware of, and to do their best to never let it happen, knowing that they have a support system in place to help them every step of the way. It won’t always be easy, but by being vocal, you’ll always be doing more good than harm, and you never know whose life you might be saving in the process.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Would you like to see more features preceded by thematically-related shorts? Do any of these scenes bring up difficult memories for you? Let me know!