Playground will leave you asking “why.” It will leave you grasping for some, ANY reason for what you just witnessed at the film’s resolution. Playground is the feature debut of young Polish filmmaker Bartosz Kowalski, and is based on a true story, which left the people of Poland asking the same question.
Playground is not a horror film, but more so a chilling drama about meaningless violence, which is especially shocking when caused by a portion of the population that’s usually thought to be so pure and innocent.
Playground follows a day-in-the-life from the perspective of three preteens in a small Polish town on their final day of school before summer vacation. We begin with Gabrysia, an insecure girl from a wealthy neighborhood who has her eyes set on another child we follow: Szymek, a troubled boy who simultaneously takes care of and abuses his invalid father. His best friend is Czarek, a rebellious boy from an impoverished home with a screaming baby brother and a bully of an older brother. We follows each of these children’s lives in a chapter-like series, starting from breakfast until they all meet at school.
The principal gives her parting words to the students, grand statements believed to be full of wisdom. Metaphors for trying to make the world a better place to live, passing on hope to future generations. They go unheard. To Gabrysia, Szymek, and Czarek, this advice is irrelevant and meaningless; they are as disaffected and distant as their own parents are to them.
It’s also the last chance for Gabrysia to confess her love to Szymek. She manages to blackmail him into meeting her in a rundown area far from the school, and instead of her hopeful expectations of intimacy and acceptance, she is harassed and humiliated by Szymek and Czarek, who gleefully filmed themselves calling her names and potentially sexually assaulting her before she manages to escape.
We come to the end of the film, unsure of what is going to become of these future delinquents as they act as if nothing happened, and go to the mall to buy candy and video games. They spot a two-year-old boy neglected by his mother, and take him for a stroll in the park. Or, at least, that’s what they want passers-by to believe.
The last ten minutes of Playground are a long, unedited, extreme wide shot of Szymek, Czarek, and the baby boy in a field. You almost need to squint to see it, which is probably a good thing: they beat the baby boy to death and drag the body to the nearby train tracks. They sit there for a long time with blood on their hands and stone cold expressions.
They feel nothing, and there is no reason.
Playground employs plenty of long, unedited shots to make us feel as if everything was happening in real time, in an almost voyeuristic kind of way that makes you feel especially icky because you and the camera are following around children. Kowalski expressed his desire to make the film seem as realistic as possible: no recognizable actors were used, no fancy shots or equipment besides handheld camera, and entirely natural lighting. There is beauty in simplicity, which made it all the more effective– and unsettling.
We are unsure of the fates of Gabrysia, Syzmek, and Czarek. And we are still unsure as to why these boys did what they did, as well as the boys in real life who inspired this story. It could be theorized that it stemmed from their difficult and violent lives at home; there is a huge gap between the children and their superiors, and the youth attempt to claim some kind of power through violence and rebelling against authority in a Clockwork Orange-type fashion, which used to be the poster child for the portrayal of delinquency.
But it ultimately comes down to the fact that they are child psychopaths: some people are born good, some are born evil, and some are born completely fucked up. Clearly these boys fall into the latter two. There is no definitive answer to why they did what they did, and all you can do is accept it, even if you don’t want to. Even children can be murderers. It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when it happened without a camera rolling.
According to Kowalski, Playground was inspired by his absolute shock over the similar incident that had occurred about fifteen years ago. That shock is apparent, and is complemented with well-timed suspense and a brilliantly crafted portrayal of childhood violence that is both thought-provoking and horrifying.
The Playground on VOD 12/8 from Uncork’d Entertainment.