Based on the horrifying true 1993 murder of two-year-old James Bulger, Bartosz M. Kowalski’s Playground sets the story in a stark, bleak Polish town. The movie revolves around three very different characters, each with their own very personal and sometimes terrible secrets that will propel them towards a shocking conclusion.
The first character we meet is Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), a shy, seemingly repressed girl who takes great care to button every button on her school shirt and tie a ribbon around her throat with the utmost care. There is some sexual molestation by her father hinted at in one scene, and she is cold and distant with her mother. Gabrysia has fallen in love with fellow classmate Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda), and plans on telling him on the last day of school.
Szymek lives in a rough part of town with his disabled father. He is shown having to help his dad to the bathroom. At first, he seems to be a caring boy, even joking around a bit. Then the interactions become more passive aggressive. In the end, he ends up violently striking his father several times before putting his shoes on and leaving for school.
Czarek (Przemyslaw Balinski) is first shown with his little brother screaming loudly in a crib that is located in the older boy’s bedroom. He is kind to the baby at first, but he is obviously frustrated at the situation. He picks up meat on the way to school and sees a hungry dog. Instead of offering the meat to the dog, he places the meat out of reach of the animal and films the dog’s desperate efforts on his phone. He smiles a cruel smile.
Eventually, these three will meet in a very disturbing encounter. It starts out as an innocent talk, and then it spins out of control. The film uses this meeting to pose the question: not what, but when is the origin of evil? After this encounter, everything about the boys is different. There is an incredible scene where Syzmek and Czarek walk side by side through town, and their faces are cold and blank. The townspeople, in turn, stop and look at them as if seeing the dawning of something truly terrible. It is an incredible image I will never forget.
Playground is deceptively slow to build the tension, but once it gets started, it is impossible to look away. The very disturbing subject matter is handled deftly by Kowalski, and he draws authentic performances from the young actors. It is a film that should not be missed.