Play (2011) Dir. Ruben Östlund
„Do you know this cradle, or anything about it?”
Ruben Östlund takes us to Gothenburg, Sweden, to familiarize us with an ongoing problem of petty thieves among kids and teenagers. The story begins in a shopping mall, where we meet two boys – both white, with blond hair, from well-to-do families. We see them from a distance for a moment just in time to introduce another group of characters. A few meters from two white boys, there are five black kids, observing them suspiciously. Östlund wants us to assume the stereotypical (and very much racially charged) situation that the black kids are going to steal from the white boys, but he makes the scene (still the opening one) quite long. He lets us eavesdrop on the two groups of boys to question our assumptions. One of the black boys accuses the white kid, Sebastian, of stealing a cell from his brother. It’s the first moment when we realize the appearances mislead.
The scene at the mall triggers a display of stalking and violence. The black boys follow the white boys, who, at some point, feel intimidated. They corner them to the point where the white boys do whatever the others demand out of sheer terror. The black boys take them to different places in the city to confuse them and trick them into taking their money and phones. There isn’t much physical violence. Instead, quite cleverly, the black boys play cat and mouse with them, making them believe that their intentions are basically good. After all, they just want to make sure that the phone belonging to Sebastian is not the stolen one. Sadly, the white boys become an easy prey without much courage to run away.
Interestingly, the violence turns against them, when a group of aggressive men threaten the kids (both the white and the black) and scare them into running away. It clearly demonstrates the survival of the fittest, or rather the biggest – two small kids tormented by a bigger group of kids terrorized by grownups. A chain reaction. From then on, there isn’t much difference between those kids. They’re from various social backgrounds, but they’re all children. Plus, they seem to enjoy each other’s company when they all run together after being jumped by bigger than them, or they would have under different circumstances. They resemble two opposing soccer teams. They keep to the rules of the game, trying to make it fair play. When it comes to a scene where two boys exchange clothes, it suggests the game is over, and both teams know that. No words necessary.
It is significant how the movie is shot. The camera never moves and never follows the actors. Instead, it shows us only a part of a location. The characters go in and out of frame, but even if we can’t see them, the camera stays still. In this way, the frame creates a context for a given situation. It’s either an escalator in the mall, a bus, or a secluded park. This context defines the characters because we see how they behave in different social situations: rude and vulgar for the passengers on the bus, or laughing and joking in the park. This is a way for Östlund to make his movie a painfully social commentary on the youth delinquency. He doesn’t want us to get attached to the characters since they only serve a purpose of demonstrating a broader problem. The individual story of the kids isn’t important because they represent stories of many kids like them.
Östlund is trying to present certain issues on a lighter note, but the movie is far from a comedy. We can’t help but laugh at the brief scenes with a cradle left on a train. They interlace the main story, but seem unrelated to it until the very end when they’re explained. The cradle introduces comic relief quite successfully, but for the most part feels too vague to make it an important element of the plot. Then, there is a single scene that makes us realize how cruel those black kids are. When a mother calls one of the white boys, the black kids pick up the phone and pretend they’re him. There is no compassion or empathy on their part. We can only imagine her reaction and fear for her son when it dawns on her that the phone has been stolen and her son is who knows where.
“Play” takes a place in a social cinema that documents a problem of a group rather than an individual. We don’t have to remember the names of the boys because they’re merely figures, symbolizing all those kids that have been bullied, and all those that bully and steal. The movie succeeds in proving that the issue is complex, and the worst solution would be to blame only one side. However, Östlund fails to smoothly integrate the last sequence of the movie into a coherent story. In this last part, he shows the beginning, why the black boys started to stalk the two boys in the first place. It makes all the difference, but it’s not clear enough to tie it to the rest of the story.
Long days, pleasant nights,