Some school stuff - mostly facts: alternatives to oxbow lakes, most of trigonometry, how to balance a chemical equation - disappears from the memory on contact with the real world and adult life. Some school stuff, on the other hand, stays with you forever. From the opening seconds of Laura Wandel's remarkable debut feature Playground, we're completely onside with its pint-sized protagonist Nora (Maya Vanderbeque), in large part because the situation she's in is almost primally familiar: being dropped off at the school gates for the very first time. Her sense of confusion and abandonment stirs something in us; we are reminded of the myriad terrors that await her. The nervy search for someone to sit with at lunch. The stress of having to walk the highbeam in P.E. when you've barely learnt to tie your own laces. Swimming lessons. It all comes flooding back, as Wandel digs further and further into this transitional moment - a pivotal, sink-or-swim point where a child goes from having a parent or two looking out for them to being placed in the care of teachers busy enough with fifty other kids, all of whom have issues that demand close supervision. This camera does what it can. Essentially, Playground is the shoulder-level realism of the Dardennes, dropped down to first-grader height. The world it perceives there (and the original Francophone title Un monde identifies it as such, at least in microcosm) is as disconcerting and brutal as that of the beetles and bugs David Lynch stooped to film in the opening moments of Blue Velvet. Nora's brother Abel (Günter Duret) is initially supportive of his younger sis, cluing her in as to how the playground operates before tearing off to bully the newcomers. But within this ecosystem, he too is smallfry, a fact Nora only grasps a few days later when she spies Abel being pushed around by older boys. A properly dramatic reversal presents itself: sister now has to look out for brother, only as per the law of this jungle (or jungle gym) he doesn't want her to look out for him, because it might make him look wussy. It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.
Formally, the film is fascinating. Playground has the spontaneity of social realism, its youthful subjects - bored or sad or helpless, alighting on lines and obsessions only kids left to their own devices would alight on - coached to interact as they would on any actual playground. But the action chiefly takes place as foreground. This may have been a technical choice on Wandel's part, to keep tabs on one or two characters when there are 200 vying for attention around them. Yet it also has dramatic implications, leaving the world beyond these button noses a blur, as it is in one's early schooldays, when you don't know your way around. Classmates loom up on Nora out of nowhere, and we've no immediate idea whether they want to play or punch our heroine in the face. (Sometimes, it's a little of both: they blindfold her, and watch giggling as she clangs her head on a metal gatepost. They can be merciless little fuckers, kids.) Wandel is very deliberate, and supremely canny, in the way she withholds focus. Only gradually do we get a sense of this girl's family, and the world outside the schoolgates. It's her dad who drops her off and picks her up; there's no sign of a mother. "Dad, why don't you work like everybody else?," Nora asks at one point; when he turns up one lunchtime with a black eye, it's both a bleak vision of these kids' futures, and something like a prison visit, replete with desperate hands-through-the-bars moment.
From the siblings' wardrobe, malnourished air and perennially downturned expressions, we guess they're somewhere towards the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain. When Abel wets himself, it cues both outspoken disgust among his classmates - "Your brother stinks of piss," his classmates tell Nora - and the thought he is very much the Sean Maguire-as-Tegs of the Belgian education system. We want them to get out of the film in one piece - god, how we want them to get out of the film in one piece - but we also get so caught up in their moment-by-moment, lunchbreak-by-lunchbreak struggle for survival that we may overlook the arc Wandel sets in place here. The Nora we see towards the end of Playground is very different from the tearful young cherub to whom we're first introduced. Now she's independent, resilient, tenacious (watch her response to learning she hasn't been invited to a classmate's birthday party, surely the biggest snub any five-year-old can face), but also bruised and scarred. She's seen some shit, and that shit will likely stay with her, because it does somehow. (And if this mild, 12A-rated trauma does, heaven knows what it must be like for the kids who get into real trouble.) The assumption that great artists can fashion extraordinary art out of the smallest things isn't always a reliable one, because we've all seen plenty of trivial, flyweight, disposable art to the contrary. But the last filmmaker to direct children this attentively and this rewardingly was Celine Sciamma (first in Tomboy, more recently Petite Maman), and there's an argument she's kicked on to become just about the most vital filmmaker in the world right now. With Playground, Wandel graduates with honours as world cinema's Girl Most Likely.
Playground opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.