In “The Playground,” ominous storytelling speaking of kingdoms, favor, covenant, cleansing, and benevolence using a “Jack and Jill” analogy spoken by a mostly unseen middle-aged man to a girl alone on a titular schoolyard comprises the auspicious start to a societal microcosm hanging in the balance. Director Edreace Purmul’s intriguing new film and second feature dives towards such high-minded territory of dark omens. “The Playground” recently won Best Film honors from Film Consortium San Diego at their 2016 San Diego Film Awards.
Through title chapters announced as we rise up a stone-set staircase, “The Playground” takes seemingly unrelated people and thrusts them into a clouded path steered by unseen forces. The tone set by the man on the playground presents a foreboding morality tale that one from any background can face, including that little girl. The result is a slow-boiling thriller that seeks to paint a world of characters questioning everything as it lays out its mystery and peril before them.
The parallels within the film center with Jack (first-time actor Lawrence R. Kivett), a laid-off former convict, and his beleaguered second wife Jill (Ghadir Mounib). He’s trying to work and make ends meet while she questions the stability of their marriage. In a different section of San Diego, we are introduced to selfish businessman Mr. Vaugn (Shane P. Allen) scheming to preserve his riches before a costly divorce. Transient about the city is a homeless man named Grandison (Merrick McCartha).
Across those three fronts, money, in some shape or form, is the unattainable goal. Beyond that greed and outside of the urban domain is the young priest Joseph (Christopher Salazar), a man on sabbatical while he solidifies his faith and purposes and may be a key to absolution and help. Each character arc is presented with different moral choices and the temptations that place them on the verge of violence or breakdown. “The Playground” teases a greater puppeteer.
The positive effort of this micro-budgeted film comes across on-screen. The ensemble acting with mostly unknowns is smooth and unforced. “The Playground” carries clean sound, a coaxing musical score from Sami Matar, and a strong variety of shot selections, cuts, and camerawork from Roger Sogues Marco. The savvy polish and valuable technical execution is there, making the narrative the chief deciding factor on the film’s success.
To create this anthology-like piece, Edreace Purmul culled anecdotes rooted in oral literature found in ancient Europe and Asia, including the Scandinavian legends of “The Treasure-Bringer” by Janssen and “The Son of the Thunder” by Kreutzwald, the Islamic fable of “Barsisa,” and the Caesar of Hesiterbach medieval sermon “Tales of the Devil.” Purmul, along with co-screenwriters Ramona Frye and Dean Mounir, adapted, weaved, and applied these allegories to a modern setting filmed in and around San Diego. That is no small undertaking and, on this level, counts as an ambitious success.
For many, this film’s blackened core will be an acquired taste of patience and tolerance and not everyone’s cup of tea. At 151 minutes, “The Playground” is an exhausting, portending test. With its long breaths between tipping points, the psychological tone sinks in deep, but its draining length tests the power of its build-up and dances in a few too many circles. When the punch does arrive, and it does, the film provokes what it promises. It is a film to respect more than enjoy.
Lesson #1: What is truly evil and how does it come into being— According to the director’s production notes, this first lesson was the central question posed in creating “The Playground.” Evil is a definition that differs little between human cultures, yet evil’s manifestations and the faces perpetuating it are always unique. This film likes to say that evil can happen to anyone, even the supposed strongest.
Lesson #2: Actions and thoughts that go against our beliefs— The layers of this story with its underlying mythology all question the behavioral choices and actions made and their level of evil intent, result, or purpose. Who or what drives one’s life and actions? Is it God, fate, or other external forces of Good vs. Evil, or is it the fickle free will of all of us flawed human beings without superstition? Think of it this way. Sins are choices, maybe don’t put yourself in the position where sin is the only choice. Skip the conflict and fly a little straighter and without temptation.