Dir: Ruben Ӧstlund • Wri: Erik Hemmendorff, Ruben Ӧstlund • Pro: Philippe Bober, Erik Hemmendorff • Ed: Jacob Secher Schulsinger • DOP: Marius Dybwad Brandrud • Cast: Sebastian Blykart, Sebastian Hegmar, John Ortiz, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Yannick Diakité, Nana Manu
Play; something children do for fun; a staged production. To ‘play’ someone; to trick, deceive or scam someone. Some of the layers of this topical Swedish drama seem to be contained in the simplicity of its title. With Play, Ruben Ӧstlund has created a film both uncomfortable and compelling to watch.
Three young boys – two white, one Asian – are targeted in a shopping centre by a group of slightly older boys, all of whom are black. One of the older boys – Yannick – approaches one of the younger – Sebastian – and asks to see his phone, then accuses him of stealing it from his brother the previous week. Thus begins an unpleasant trek around the city in an effort to ‘sort out’ the situation, apparently trying to track down Yannick’s fictitious older brother. This stolen phone scam is a much rehearsed activity amongst Yannick and his friends. They choose what roles they will play before it starts – the angry younger brother, the voice of reason. They call it ‘good cop’ and ‘bad cop’. This is their play, in both senses. This is how they pass their day. It is fun for them. They are children, but their play involves scaring and stealing from other children.
Common preconceptions are made obvious straight away. The group of black boys are loud, boisterous and troublesome compared to the polite and well behaved other three boys. From the outset, one group is ‘bad’ whilst the other is ‘good’. But political correctness might make it seem wrong to think that, which is what Ӧstlund seems to be challenging. Is bad behaviour a product of its environment or is it just bad? Surely there is some human instinct for good and bad that is independent of context? These questions are brought to mind as the film goes on, but no easy answers are offered.
Sebastian and his friends spend the day being led around the city in a state of suppressed fear. But is it their naiveté that causes them to submit to the older boys’ authority and go along with the stolen phone story, or is it political correctness, already bred into them by their ostensibly middle class upbringing? They appear to know they are being robbed, and they appear to know it because the five older boys are black and they are not. In the beginning, as they try and figure out why the gang of boys are targeting them, the Asian boy is elected by his two friends to go and talk to them. ‘Why me?’ he asks. They do not answer him. Later, as Sebastian finally demands to know why Yannick and his friends see fit to torment them, their response is ‘anybody who shows their phone to five black guys only has themselves to blame’, apparently using a racist preconception to justify their own actions – they expect it of us, so why not give them what they’re looking for?
It is notable that this societal dilemma plays out in entirely in the realm of children. The children seem to be paying the price asked by the culture that their parents have created for them. There is a pronounced lack of adult authority or intervention. Throughout frightening scenes on public transport, adults sit by and do nothing. The adults are impotent and the children must fend for themselves. An angry dad attempting to mete out some kind of justice at the end seems ridiculous, his actions pretty much as reprehensible as those done against his son who he is trying to avenge. His subsequent argument with the liberal, concerned onlooker is almost a too neatly packaged summation of the entire dilemma of the film. She remarks that immigrant children ‘don’t have the same opportunities as our children do’. Yet the film does not show the older boys to be the products of a deprived background. So the dilemma persists.
There is always a choice to be made between doing or not doing something inherently wrong. When aspects of race, class and culture are brought in, however, such a notion becomes obscured. Play casts a cool eye over such issues, and addresses them in such a forthright manner as to be uncomfortable and challenging to watch. It is impossible to watch this film without a certain amount of reassessing of your own attitudes towards the political and social issues that it addresses, a great achievement for any film in and of itself. This aspect, along with its high-end production values and the performances from its predominantly youthful cast, makes it very much worthy of recommendation.
Play is released on 12th July 2013