Playground Chronicles (Chroniques d’une Cour de Récré): Doha Tribeca Review

Playground Chronicles - Film Still - H 2012
Coming of age in early 1980s Paris.

The young French-Moroccan director Brahim Fritah draws on personal family memories in this hit-and-miss feature debut.

Sticking with the evergreen golden rule to write about what you know, French director Brahim Fritah stages a dramatic reconstruction of scenes from his Parisian childhood in this likeable but insubstantial screen memoir. Previously best known for prize-winning shorts, Fritah’s debut feature has bags of charm, an appealing young cast and an agreeably playful attitude. Following its world premiere at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival last week, further festival screenings seem likely. But this gentle rites-of-passage story lacks emotional heft or narrative originality, so box-office appeal beyond specialist Francophone audiences will probably be lukewarm.

It is the summer of 1980, and 10-year-old suburban schoolboy Brahim (Yanis Bahloul) is a mischievous moptop daydreamer with a passion for photography, an innocent crush on his classmate Nathalie and a troubled best friend whose family are political refugee from Chile. Although Brahim and his brother are still immersed in the playpen mentality of childhood, the adult world is starting to intrude with a strike at the factory where his Moroccan immigrant father works. The dark clouds of unemployment, recession, racial tension and class conflict gather on the distant horizon.

And yet the coming storm never arrives. Instead, Fritah keeps such potentially heavy topics out of shot as he serves up a loosely linked series of whimsical, mostly sunny vignettes. Even when the strike at the factory turns bitter, it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. In fairness, most of these episodes are enlivened with witty visual touches, from freeze frames to monochrome interludes, magic-realist fantasies and spooky dream sequences. All engagingly fresh and Nouvelle Vague, but no amount of stylistic bling can fully make up for minimal character development and a dearth of dramatic incident.

Of course, the director cannot be blamed for having a relatively uneventful childhood, but more historical context and psychological depth might have helped elevate this thin story from personal memoir to Truffaut-style universal fable. In other words, Playground Chronicles is very much a first film. That said, it buzzes with easy charm and latent potential. Fritah has mastered the style, now he needs the substance to back it up.

Venue: Doha Tribeca Film Festival, Nov. 19
Production company: Futurikon
Producer: Philippe Delarue
Cast: Yanis Bahloul, Rocco Campochiaro, Mostéfa Djadjam, Dalila Ibnou Ennadre
Director: Brahim Fritah
Writers: Brahim Fritah, Jehanne Bernard
Cinematographer: Pascal Lagriffou
Editor: Catherine Mantion
Music: Jean-Christophe Onno
Sales company: Futurikon
Rating TBC, 85 minutes