'Playground': Film Review | San Sebastian 2016

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Michalina Swistun in 'Playground'
A calculatingly steely descent into real-life horror.

Polish director Bartosz M Kowalski surveys violently wayward youth in his debut feature, premiering in the Official Competition of the long-running festival.

The eponymous location is most definitely of the devil's variety in Bartosz M Kowalski's cumulatively harrowing Polish ordeal-by-cinema Playground (Plac zbaw). Adopting the by-now familiar template of Gus Van Sant's Elephant to fictionalize the murder of 3-year-old James Bulger at the hands of two 10-year-old boys in 1993 Liverpool, it's a necessarily unpleasant and ultimately horrible experience which will certainly leave no viewer indifferent.

Building steadily to a hideous, protracted finale which sent several dozen spectators fleeing for the exits during the world premiere at San Sebastian — where the film contends for the Golden Shell — this is one of the year's most savagely polarizing titles. Further festival exposure is a given for a picture seemingly tailor-made, one might even say calculated, to spark vociferous post-screening debate.

Working as director, co-writer and editor here, Kowalski's background is largely in documentary, though he was also responsible for 2013's mid-length A Dream In the Making, about a young man from the wrong side of the tracks in training to become a movie stuntman. Playground continues his preoccupation with hard-knock urban corners of contemporary Poland, with two of the three 12-year-old protagonists hailing from low-rent neighborhoods.

Numbered chapters of varying lengths, announced by austere white-on-black title-cards, introduce the trio of main characters: pudgy Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), an introspective lass from an affluent, somewhat remote family; mature-beyond-his-years Szymek (Nicolas Pryzgoda), who looks after his handicapped dad in their Communist-era high-rise; and finally sad-eyed Czarek (Przemek Balinski), who hails from a pre-Communist tenement slum.

The three arrive at school for their last day before the summer vacation, Kowalski having established a streak of casual cruelty in the two boys and considerable insecurity in their distaff classmate. Budding sexual tensions culminate after lessons have finished, when the lads gleefully torment the puppy-love-struck Gabrysia in the ruins of a dilapidated building. So far, so unpleasant — but nothing too far out of the ordinary. In the longest and last chapter, however, Szymek and Czarek encounter an unattended tot in a shopping-mall — the juncture at which, for those familiar with the circumstances Bulger's death, the real-life basis of the narrative becomes abruptly and blood-chillingly apparent.

Having up until this point concocted an imaginary storyline for his kids, Kowalski (working with scriptwriter Stanislaw Warwas) now adheres closely to the actual events of February 12 1993. This was the day on which Bulger was abducted from a Merseyside shopping center by Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, playing hooky from the British equivalent of elementary school. The trio walked for some time through Liverpool, ending up near a railway line where Bulger was killed in a protracted and grotesquely violent manner. The case was a huge new story in the UK (and further afield) at the time and has never been far from the headlines ever since, amid debates about the culpability of child offenders and the ethics of rehabilitation in such extreme cases.

Playground makes many crucial alterations in transferring the case from reality to the screen, not least in terms of making the two boys a couple of years older than the actual killers, and so is arguably only of limited relevance in terms of shedding light on Venables and Thompson's monstrously distorted psychology. But while the specifics of Bulger's murder are extreme even in the realms of infanticide, Playground touches upon youth-delinquency questions of a regrettably universal nature, its verisimilitude boosted by a trio of excellent performances by the kids (Malgorzata Olczyk is also terrific in brief scenes as Czarek's haggard, hectoring mom.)

As in Van Sant's Palme d'Or winner from 2003, there is no shortage of possible "explanations" for the homicidal malevolence of the murderers, although of course Kowalski and Warwas carefully avoid explicit finger-pointing. In stylistic terms, however, the picture lays on the dread-drenched atmospherics rather too thick at times: widescreen compositions of fearful symmetry abound, and doom-laden sound-effects periodically come rumbling up through the audio to amp up the ominousness.

The brutal conclusion, however, is handled with pared-down restraint, via an extended-take long-shot in which the three participants are reduced to tiny figures in the middle-distance, the boys' chatter and their victims' cries rendered near-inaudible. Sickeningly convincing CGI is deployed to recreate the actual killing — which, as San Sebastian reactions attest, will probably come as a horrendous, even overwhelming shock to those unacquainted with the Bulger case. The shattering impact reverberates all the way through the end credits — and beyond.

Production company: Film It
Cast: Michalina Swistun, Nicolas Przygoda, Przemek Balinski, Patryk Swiderski, Pawel Brandys, Anita Jancia-Prokopowicz, Pawel Karolak, Malgorzata Olczyk
Director / Editor: Bartosz M. Kowalski
Screenwriters: Bartosz M. Kowalski, Stanislaw Warwas
Producers: Dariusz Pietrykowski, Andrzej Polec
Executive producer: Mirella Zaradkiewicz
Cinematographer: Mateusz Skalski
Production designer: Marek Warszewski
Costume designer: Agata Culak
Composer: Kristian Eidnes Andersen
Casting directors: Alana Falana, Mieszko Falana
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Competition)
Sales: Latido Films, Madrid (latido@latidofilms.com)
In Polish
No Rating, 82 minutes

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