Playground is a Polish thriller about the last day of school in small town where a young girl wants to tell her classmate that she loves him, though this is not a good idea.
It’s tempting, at least initially, to call Bartosz M. Kowalski‘s latest Playground (Polish: Plac zabaw) a coming-of-age drama, as it certainly is stocked with all the right markers, including preteen students and a bit of romantic longing. However, despite the many lengths it goes to in keeping that on our minds at the start, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it is a harrowing, deeply distressing account of two youths that will be highly polarizing, going places that are truly traumatizing, even as it remains undeniably compelling.
Told in six titled chapters that slowly pieces together the events of a single day in the lives of three middle school students, it begins with Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), a preteen girl who starts by experimenting with lipstick once out of the shower, a clear sign that she’s feeling something different about herself and wants to be seen as more than she is, especially to one boy in particular. She swipes it off before heading to school. That boy is Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda), a classmate who begins his day, like every other, caring for his disabled father, though there is obvious resentment, seen in a jarring moment that resets immediately our perception of him. Last is Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski), dealing with an infant brother in his bedroom and a mother that won’t listen to his complaints, shaving his head before starting his day. He is Szymek’s best friend and the two meet Gabrysia after classes, as she hoped, but take to aggressively abusing her before leaving her and moving on to a much more horrifying act of violence.
This is not an easy watch, growing increasingly more disturbing as each chapter unfolds, revealing a seed of cruelty within these two boys that germinates rapidly. We are meant to ask what, if anything, motivates them, both clearly unhappy in their mostly unsupervised homes, though Kowalski is careful not to make this an excuse. Nor does he point the blame at video games, or music, or any other contemporary go to source, allowing all of these to be present but barely visible. These are simply deeply troubled boys from the start, unchallenged and without boundaries, seemingly destined for great malice. The film is fictional but influenced by the shocking childhood crime in the 1990s (click here for the true story, but be warned it will spoil the plot of this film), and yet Kowalski frames it very observationally, often like a narrator-free documentary, with some later scenes filmed as though through CCTV (another echo of the case mentioned just prior). There is hardly any dialogue, and what is said does little compared to what is seen. This is a visual nightmare.
Przygoda and Balinski are very well cast, their stoic nonchalance chilling throughout, even as Kowalski sneaks in bits that leave them very much looking like normal school kids. Yet, once established, there is a thick thread of menace about them that keeps the film simmering with great dread. When the final scene comes, it’s a staggering single take lasting several minutes, seen from a distance with muffled sounds to lead us to what amounts to be a moment of abject horror, not in the traditional sense, but for everything it implies. Kowalski steers clear of sensationalizing this even as it makes no compromises in what we are shown. It’s enough to make me extend a further warning that this will be a disturbing watch.
Kowalski offers only one scene, seen twice at important turns in the movie, that deviates from the day-in-the-life aspect of the story, a short slow-motion sequence of the boys walking emotionless down a street populated by adults who stare at them with judging eyes. It is the only obvious social commentary he presents, other than the film itself. It’s an intriguing moment and one that serves as the leaping off point for discussion. That the film ends as it does, begging us for answers and meaning where none are given is, I suspect, entirely the point.
The Playground releases on VOD 12/8.
Movie description: Playground is a Polish thriller about the last day of school in small town where a young girl wants to tell her classmate that she loves him, though this is not a good idea.
Director(s): Bartosz M. Kowalski
Actor(s): Michalina Swistun, Nicolas Przygoda, Przemyslaw Balinski