Film Title: Play
Director: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Kevin Vaz, Anas Abdirahman, Johan Jonason
Running Time: 127 min
A spate of mobile phone robberies in and around Gothenburg inspired Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund to create this terrifying and controversial edge-of-seat drama.
Based on real-life testimonies and court cases, Play depicts the “abduction” and robbery of three middle-class 11-year-olds by a gang of five similarly aged black kids. It’s complicated. As is often the case with bullying, it can be difficult to determine the ebb and flow of the interpersonal dynamics.
The bruising misadventure kicks off with a phone and a scam. The Bigger Boys claim the item belongs to their brother. The trio of well- brought-up kids are dragged off “just to check”. Their detainers maintain control for the hours that follow by playing psychological games and executing a well-rehearsed good-cop/bad-cop routine.
Watch the trailer - Play
Almost inevitably, the most sympathetic of the crew (Kevin Vaz, a remarkable young actor) turns out to be the meanest. At one point the increasingly menacing gang applaud their victim’s recital of The Entertainer on the clarinet; at other times they hover outside shops and cafes to ensure there is no escape.
It’s taken a while for this superior Scandi drama to open in British and Irish cinemas. One suspects the delay relates to the film’s chilling overlaps with real life abductions and cases of child-on-child violence. Östlund has experience as a documentary maker, and Play’s aesthetic authenticity seldom makes for easy viewing. There are no hugely violent acts depicted, but a palpable sense of helplessness infects both audience and the young victims.
Many Swedish commentators have denounced the film as racist. It’s not. The five bullies are very much aware that their skin colour can be used to their own advantage: “What did you expect to happen?” shouts one as the ordeal reaches a climax. “It’s your own fault going off with five black guys.” The inequality that underscores these actions has little to do with race and everything to do with class and societal attitudes toward teens and pre-teens.
Time and again, adults witness what’s going on and elect to do nothing about it. A ticket inspector, yet another unseeing grown-up, provides a bitterly ironic coda.