In a perfect hour and 12 minutes, “Playground” tells the sweeping, intimate story of a child’s coming into consciousness. Set almost entirely within the confines of an elementary school and its grounds, it takes place in an unidentified Belgian neighborhood at an institution that’s as colorless, generic and unwelcoming as any educational sausage factory. There, girls and boys are turned into students, playmates, friends, adversaries, future citizens and dutiful workers. They study and obey but sometimes they also resist.
It’s the first day of school when you meet Nora (an astonishing Maya Vanderbeque), a plaintive 7-year-old with short hair and worried eyes. She’s hugging her brother, Abel (Günter Duret, a heartbreaker), who’s slightly older and a touch taller, her eyes beginning to flood as her father (Karim Leklou) silently stands by. Her face is bunched in a knot of anxiety and her grip is tenacious, unyielding. As the children clutch at each other, their bodies fused and foreheads touching, Abel whispers words of comfort. “Don’t worry,” he gently tells Nora, just before a supervisor pulls them apart. “I’ll see you at break time.”
This reunion never occurs. Instead — as happens recurrently in this fierce, intelligent movie — grown-ups get in the way, blinkered by their obeisance to rules, regulations and pedagogical imperatives. Forced to eat lunch separately from Abel, Nora sits down with some other girls; in time, she also settles into school. She makes friends and expands her horizons: She learns how to tie her shoes. “Good job,” a girl says, expressing support with a tinge of adult condescension. But school also brings harrowing trouble when Abel becomes the target of vicious bullying — for Nora, it is a devastating introduction to the larger world.
This is the first feature from the writer-director Laura Wandel, and it’s a knockout, as flawlessly constructed as it is harrowing. By the time the first scene has ended, Wandel has set the anxious mood, introduced her characters, established the visual design and created a richly inhabited world that’s disturbingly familiar. (If you don’t flash on your childhood with at least a few pangs while watching it, you are made of stronger stuff than I am.) From the sights and sounds of Nora being escorted into school — the image darkens as the sound of children’s voices rise to a roar — you are already primed for the worst.