Playground is a necessarily uncomfortable film that bleakly exposes the darkness of a child’s soul. Inspired by true events surrounding the killing of three-year-old James Bulger at the hands of two ten-year-olds in 1993 Liverpool, director Bartosz M. Kowalski employs a style that recalls both Elephant by Gus Van Sant and Michel Haneke. It essentially depicts childhood without childhood; here, even a schoolgirl’s innocent crush can become the source of pain and unwarranted psychological and physical violence. The film follows the lives of three protagonists: pudgy teachers’ pet Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), who has a crush on one of her classmates, Szymek (Nicholas Przygoda), who is the best friend of the typical sad-eyed schoolyard rebel, Czarek (Przemek Balinski). It builds up slowly but surely to a tough-to-watch finale that has not only outraged viewers
The film follows the lives of three protagonists: pudgy teachers’ pet Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), who has a crush on one of her classmates, Szymek (Nicholas Przygoda), who is the best friend of the typical sad-eyed schoolyard rebel, Czarek (Przemek Balinski). It builds up slowly but surely to a tough-to-watch finale that has not only outraged viewers worldwide but also sent spectators leaping out of their seats and leaving the screenings rooms at film festival showings. This ending, a lengthy and distant long-shot in which both the action and the young characters are somewhat decentered, appears to replicate an unassuming gaze; perhaps the most shocking thing about it, in fact, is not the violence itself, but the way in which it directly involves the spectator by exposing an adult repression of a vision of childhood that is anything but traditional: happy, fleeting and, most of all, innocent. Despite the slightly misleading title, in fact, there is not an ounce of romanticism or nostalgia in Kowalski’s film.
Adults play a marginal role in the movie. Still, they may be a source of a child’s troubles and pain. Szymek, for instance, lives in a Communist era high-rise and cares for his handicapped father. Though he looks mature beyond his age, he dreads his situation, and his frustration at seeing his father in this state and having to care for him occasionally comes to the fore in some sudden bursts of anger. But Kowalski does not blame adults for child behaviour. Barbarism does not exclusively begin at home. For instance, the fact that the scenes that happen before the ending take place in a huge shopping centre exposes the influence of a decadent capitalist society on the vulnerable psychology of a child. This, to be sure, is the same society that sexualizes women. When Gabyrsia asks her friend for advice on how to capture Szymek’s heart, she tells her to behave like a sex kitten. Indeed, sex appears to be the highest form of romantic gratification, a main objective, even in early-age romance. (The matter-of-fact sexual charged nature of this particular dialogue between Gabyrsia and her friend is quite disorienting.)
Ultimately, Playground is not a film that provides answers. It is a film that exposes something that is rarely seen in such a brutal and unflinching way. In doing so, while never leaning towards exploitation, it attracts attention to itself and becomes the starting point for a dialogue on child psychology. Some have deemed its brutality excessive, but those blaming the director for his excesses appear to continue the trend of repression of a truth about childhood that is often subdued and ignored but which, nevertheless exists. – ★★★★
POC ZABAW | 2016, Poland | Drama | Directed by – Bartosz M. Kowalski / Produced by – Dariusz Pietrykowski, Mirella Zaradkiewicz / Written by – Bartosz M. Kowalski, Stanislaw Warwas / Music by – Kristian Eidnes Andersen / Cinematographer – Mateusz Skalski / Editing by – Bartosz M. Kowalski / Starring – Michalina Swistun, Nicolas Przygoda, Przemyslaw Balinski | Running time: 82 mins.