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Welcome to ‘Grange hell’, in the most panic-attack-inducing film of the year

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

Playground is Wandel’s first feature, and it’s simple in many ways. It follows two siblings, Nora and Abel, through a tough few days in elementary school. The events it depicts are fairly ordinary: bullying, some severe and some less severe, and a handful of lower-level rites of passage. It starts without a big beginning, ends without a clean ending and takes place entirely on the school grounds.

Its brilliance lies in its perspective. Crucially, the film is blessed with a heartbreakingly plausible leading lady from nine-year-old Maya Vanderbeque: she portrays Nora, the film’s troubled young protagonist, with the kind of flawless psychological integrity that would cause Daniel Day-Lewis to drop his cobblestones let kit. And Wandel takes advantage of this by keeping the film’s own perspective steadfastly true to Nora’s. The camera hovers above her eye line, making even the older students loom, and most adults resemble little more than disembodied legs, like the maid in Tom and Jerry cartoons. The sounds of the schoolyard — clattering footsteps, slurred shouts and screams — ring to our ears like the din of a war zone.

What few glimpses of adult life are intentionally hard to decipher: Nora’s housewife father (Karim Leklou) is a sad lump who doesn’t seem to have a job, and while his children’s somewhat unwashed clothes and unwashed hair tell their own subtle story, the details of the The family’s domestic situation is not disclosed. (There is no mention of a mother.) Perhaps most terrifying of all is Nora’s constant struggle to understand the extent to which she is responsible for everything that happens at this strange institution.

Unlike her closest male relatives, Nora is a born problem solver. She makes friends quickly – a scene where she and her new classmates compare packed lunches is a delight – and if you’re surprised that she can’t tie her shoelaces yet, she’s dying to learn. Even when she sees her withdrawn older brother (Günter Duret, also excellent) being bullied by classmates, she immediately intervenes – she doesn’t yet know the code of stairwell Omertà.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/playground-review-panic-attack-inducing-film-year/ Welcome to ‘Grange hell’, in the most panic-attack-inducing film of the year

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