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.
You’re also firmly in Wandel’s grip. The image of distressed children can’t help but seize your attention (and quickly stoke your sympathies), but the scene’s tenderness also holds you. In “Playground,” the camera never points down at Nora, but is positioned at her eye level, as if it were another child. This creates an immediate, palpable intimacy, a gentleness that’s accentuated by the tightness of the shot, the soft light and Nora’s tears. You’re at her side, and that’s where you remain. You see what she sees in her immediate orbit, but you also see how she sees, allowing you to step into her limited sphere and experience her narrow sightlines.
In “Playground,” Nora is the narrative pivot, and because she’s most often positioned in the center of the frame, she is also the movie’s visual center point, its lodestar. But what she understands about her new, uncharted world is sharply circumscribed. She sees but doesn’t always know, and while you may grasp the situation, Wandel also shrewdly withholds information, which puts you on the same uncertain existential level as Nora. Because Nora is so tiny there are moments when you don’t even see the faces or upper bodies of the adults, a vantage that recalls the few peeks of grown-ups in early Charlie Brown comics.
The story gathers momentum as the bullying dangerously escalates amid short scenes of Nora’s everyday school life. She goes to class, reads and writes, and endures time on a balance beam and in a swimming pool. She watches, and she learns. In one scene, a teacher orders her and other girls to circle their arms in different directions, an exercise mostly in submission. The school is shaping minds, but Wandel reminds you that it’s also disciplining bodies. On the playground, the children — through their play and their sadism — mimic these adult lessons in power, creating a different educational regime.
A work of striking integrity and force, “Playground” owes a debt to the influential Belgian filmmaker brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, both in its formal and thematic concerns. As in their movies, Wandel is charting a moral awakening and focusing on the questions that many movies rarely engage. How do we love, and why? How do we become, who do we become? Wandel is telling the story of one child, a tiny planet spinning in a mysterious, often confusing, unsettled universe. (The original title is “Un Monde.”) But she’s also telling a story that in its piercing, sensitive detail and life-shaping arc is as familiar as yours and mine.
Not rated. In French. Running time: 1 hour 12 minutes. In theaters.