Five older black boys conspire to pick on and possibly con two younger blond-haired Swedish boys and their Asian-looking friend.
Shot from a distance and using long takes, Play has a documentary feel that makes their mean “play” all the more disturbing.
The Race Card
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I hate to drag the race into the synopsis, but director Ruben Östlund seems to be provoking the audience by playing to stereotypes, and he seems to be asking “what are you going to do about it?” You could read the conflict as black versus white, or immigrant versus native, or jock versus nerd — or even five specific boys versus three other specific boys.
The film takes place over the course of a day, with nary a parent in sight. It begins with the five approaching the three and their leader, Abdi, asking to see Sebastian’s iPhone. He says that Sebasitan’s phone looks just like his brother’s, which was stolen last week, implying maybe he’ll have to take Sebastian’s phone “back.”
Yannick plays good cop to Abdi’s bad cop when Sebastian protests his innocence. “We believe you, but we just need to get this sorted out.”
From the mall they go to another part of the city where Abdi’s brother lives — or so they say — and from there they go to more and more remote locations. You and I would never go along with the suspicious scenario, but the three are so naïve and so subservient to authority that they agree to every suggestion the older boys make.
They Grow Up So Fast
Play is a subtext reader’s dream.
As if to illustrate the culture of respect for benevolent authority, the film includes a parallel story of a cradle left on a comfortable-looking train carrying well-heeled commuters. The calm voice of the transit authority keeps asking for the owner of the cradle to please contact an agent so that they can move the cradle out of the walkway where someone might — heaven forbid — be inconvenienced by the blocked doorway.
But why a cradle and not a box? To distance the adult world from the child world? To illustrate that children are an inconvenience to some adults?
Look at the handful of adults in Play and you’ll see a strong inclination not to get involved. The one time an adult tries to step in, he ends up backing down from the violent teens who challenge him. It’s chaos for the young victims of bullying because there is no law, there is no authority, it’s the wild West. There is an ironical scene later in the film where the transit cops — absent and impotent when needed — show up to hassle the wrong kids.
Blurring the Line
The film has many disturbing scenes but the most repulsive is a telephoto shot of the Asian boy running off into a field to shit, which the stubborn camera insists on watching. Why? Probably to blur the line between acting and reality. The young actors almost all play characters of the same name — Yannick Diakité plays Yannick, Sebastian Blyckert plays Sebastian, and Anas Abdirahman plays Abdi. In a later scene, one of Abdi’s crew makes Sebastian’s friend do a hundred pushups. The camera watches, never cutting, as the young Swede sweats out 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, and more pushups.
But why blur the line at all? For one thing, it’s emotionally effective. It’s much harder to dismiss what you’re seeing when the film takes the perspective of a disinterested surveillance camera. For a film on a smaller budget, it’s an inexpensive special effect that works very well.
The cinematography is not actually as boring as that, though. Play isn’t literally static. True, all of the shots are telephoto and many of them are long takes. But in a few scenes, the mind of the cinematographer shows through. A long and harrowing attack on a subway car plays out for several minutes, then, suddenly, the camera moves left a few feet to reveal a surprise — Sebastian is hiding in a corner, trying not to be noticed by the thugs.
Play could spawn a dozen essays in a good film or sociology class. When the two white Swedes want to make peace, they send their friend John (the Asian kid) to talk to the other dark boys. Why him, he asks? Good question. What is the implication?
And what about the dominant white liberal culture and their well-meaning multicultural acceptance? The railroad workers have an “aha” moment when it occurs to them that all of the announcements were in Swedish, and maybe the owners of the cradle are immigrants. There are scenes of Native American dancers, in full regalia, busking for change in a square in Gothenburg. A redheaded Swede wears dreadlocks and listens to a Bob Marley imitator. A blond-haired classmate does an interpretive dance to African music.
Is Play meaner for making Swedish culture look naïve? Or is it meaner for suggesting that Sweden has reason to be suspicious of other cultures? It doesn’t feel like Östlund has a specific message or a specific complaint. Rather, it feels like he’s asking questions that would be considered impolite in a progressive liberal society.
Play has a coda that at first looks like it might tie the story of the cradle to the story of the boys. But rather than providing closure, it adds another layer of conflict on top of what has already been a tense 90 minutes. If I have any complaints about the filmmaking, it’s that the last segment might feel a little out of place.
Play is a heavy film and it’s not for everyone. To me, that’s a refreshing change from light films that are made for everyone — those are a dime a dozen, and they don’t have nearly as much to offer as Play.