The Playground

In many countries, however different they might seem otherwise, teenagers all face much the same life or death crises -- what to wear, who to ask to the dance, and whether or not their parents will ever stop being hopelessly uncool. At first glance, the group of Polish teenagers in The Playground aren't any different as they gather for the last day of school, bringing flowers for their teachers, which is a tradition there. At my school, giving flowers to a teacher for any reason would have exposed you to eternal ridicule.

Given that it's the last day, Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun) is trying to find the nerve to approach her classmate Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda) before it's too late. She's about thirteen and feeling tremendously awkward, unsure of how to tell Szymek that she has a huge crush on him and would like to date him. With the help of a more savvy classmate, Marta (Karolina Czajka), Gabrysia arranges a meeting with Szymek on which she pins all her hopes.

Meanwhile, Szymek is hanging out with his best friend and partner in crime, Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski). Neither boy has the best home life -- Czarek has a distant mother and an older brother who bullies him, besides being made to share his room with his toddler brother, who ensures that Czarek doesn't get a lot of sleep. Szymek has to help care for his father (Pawel Karolak), who's largely bedridden, and is clearly bitter about the arrangement.

This is a natural recipe for teenage rebellion, and they do plenty of that. But there's also a much darker side to the ways in which they act out, including tormenting insects and dogs. Even more creepily, Szymek loves to record all their adventures for their later viewing pleasure. Gabrysia seems oblivious to this side of her crush, though since I suspect that she has her own troubles at home this may be partly a case of any port in a storm.

The rendezvous with Gabrysia inevitably goes horribly wrong, with Szymek deliberately sabotaging it so he can go to the mall with his buddy. The two boys have a habit of inspiring each other to worse and worse acts without even speaking, each of them instinctively trying to outdo each other. Equally inevitably, this unhealthy pattern leads them to more and more heinous crimes.

The most effective part of the film by far is the calm and quiet with which the boys perform every action, no matter how terrible. They seem to get little pleasure from the things they do -- it's more that something compels them, and enjoyment in the usual sense doesn't enter into it. All the children have parents who are absent or otherwise largely incapable of being parents, like Szymek's father, and left to their own devices Szymek and Czarek have created their own rules, with their cruelties limited only by their imaginations.

I'll give it four out of five. The neighborhood where the children live is reminiscent of thousands of economically depressed factory towns around the world, dull and uninspiring, and it's no wonder those who live there might want to find an escape. But the speed with which the boys spin out of control is shocking, all the more so since neither of them ever so much as raises his voice. Even more horrific is the fact that it's based on a true story, here brought to life in a way that will draw you in and leave you gasping at the final scene.

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Gabrysia asks Szymek to meet her at the ruins. Poor girl.

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