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Playground (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Kids who definitely need some supervision."
3 stars

SCREENED AT MONSTER FEST 2016: There’s a certain bravery to the way films like "Playground" transgress, although it’s a courage that is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be: The filmmakers are obliquely saying incendiary things to an audience that is inclined to search for such meaning and likely to agree with that which is being said, after congratulating themselves on enduring something that folks going to the cinema for mere entertainment wouldn’t. It impresses, it reveals a bit more under scrutiny, and yet, I honestly don’t know whether I’d recommend someone see it rather than just tell them about it.

It starts by focusing on Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), a smart and serious pre-teen in a small Polish town who has decided that today, the last day of school, is the day she’ll ask her classmate Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda) out. Szymek’s a good-looking class-clown type, the sort eleven-year-old girls like, and Gabrysia has everything she needs to do to not get him to blow it off. As the three prepare for school, Szymek has to help out his handicapped father, while his best friend Ozmek (Przemyslaw Balinski) complains about his baby brother. Gabrysia has a plan not to be blown off, although maybe she should be looking elsewhere.

It would be easy to writer/director Bartosz Kowalski to make Gabrysia the clear-cut protagonist of the film facing unfair rejection, but the fact that he doesn’t is kind of interesting: She’s pushy and demanding, not just ready to declare her affection but looking for a way to back Szymek into having to go out with her. When the film shifts to Szymek’s and Ozmek’s point of view, she comes off as snobby and entitled where before she might have just seemed socially odd, full of unevenly-distributed self-confidence. Michalina Swistun is impressive in giving Kowalski what he wants as perspective and circumstances shift - she’s never precocious in a cute, ingratiating way, but there’s nervousness to when she’s trying to be manipulative and sympathetic horror to her being called on it. Gabrysia is maybe not someone the audience is always behind, but she’s always interesting.

The boys are a similar sort of interesting when the audience first meets them, too; Kowalski serves up alternating glimpses of what might make the pair cool and off-putting, though he’s careful to remember that a carefully-edited film makes a different impression than real life, so the early indications that Szymek has a dark side might loom larger. He’s very careful to frame these first impression so that, even though it’s clear that “not perfect” is putting things kindly where they’re concerned, there’s something relatable in them being kids whose parents are ruining their fun, and the charisma that gets girls his age interested comes naturally to Przygoda as Szymek.

Kowalski shifts the focus between them initially, with the first three of the film’s six chapters titled for one and following them as they get ready for school and then mostly spend the day on end-of-year ceremonies and the like, although in doing so he seldom revisits the same events from a different kid’s perspective, and when he does, it’s not with a twist meant to make the viewer re-evaluate. Instead, he tends toward fly on the wall observation, letting the difficulty in maneuvering a camera around someone’s home send its own message. By staying back and watching these pre-teens do basic junior-high stuff, Kowalski shows how their attention is on relatively small things without playing it as entirely trivial, a careful balance of how malice can often be hidden but not entirely camouflaged by sweetness.

I suspect that what Kowalski is going for on the way to the malice coming out is clearer and more full of metaphor for native Poles than foreigners, although there’s plenty of interesting material for those willing to sink their teeth into it: One chapter, for instance, is called “Ruins”, and has its young people playing amid the remains of a past era that may seem more impressive to those who never experienced it or who overlook its shortcomings, and it’s not hard to map social class and adult concerns onto these kids, with Gabrysia part of a group that is already comfortable but still gives itself awards and demands more while Szymek’s youth is already filled with responsibilities for his handicapped father. Resentment boils over in such cases, with the comfortable not seeing it coming.

There’s problems with the last act, though; Kowalski shifts some characters around in an apparent attempt to make the finale more shocking, in doing so losing one of the threads that got him and the audience to this point. He also changes shooting style, moving from documentary-style handheld camerawork to found-footage surveillance as smoothly as one can, but it’s still obvious enough to make one wonder if the change was so that he could show some violence off in the distance, disguising the use of an obvious dummy and not having to do especially detailed work. It’s all defensible choices - the escalation of grievances to violence happens in full public view, and the unwavering gaze of the security camera not letting the audience look away from what’s happening - but the effect is a bit too deliberate, making the audience notice Kowalski’s attempts to make them uncomfortable rather than the message he’s trying to convey.

That’s a common peril of art-house cinema, one that endangers its reach and impact. "Playground" is a well-made film with plenty to say, but if the initial impression is that it is dull and its violence showy despite being serious, and most people aren’t inclined to spend some time poking at it afterward, is it truly effective in the way it is trying to be?

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originally posted: 01/20/17 02:00:51
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  27-Nov-2016 (R)

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