Through teen scams, Native American song and an ownerless cradle, Ruben Östlund’s Play offers a long hard look at social discomfort at play.
Child’s Play by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Based on the real-life ‘kid brother’ scam that took place in Gothenburg in the mid ’90s, Ruben Östlund’s Play picks up where his previous documentary Involuntary left off, with Sweden’s disaffected youth challenging social dynamics, only this time with a racial slant. The five boys that harass Sebastian, Alex and John are the only blacks we see in this land of trams, cross-country skiing and dog walkers. Played by non-actors, all the characters bear their actors’ names – Yannick, Kevin, Nana, Abdi and Anas, adding a documentary frisson to Östlund’s long takes and wry observations. We are the bystanders, the audience to the teenagers’ performance as they spin a tall tale around a stolen mobile phone and lead the three boys out of safety and into their games. Through coercion, threats and promises, they manipulate them into handing over their valuables – without violence but with a deeply unsettling manipulation which thrives on the ambiguity between real danger and play.
In a shopping centre in Gothenburg, two boys are clocked by a gang of five – Yannick, Kevin, Abdi, Anas and Nana. Zig, zag, zug – they become victims of their scam. After school, Alex, Sebastian and John are checking out sneakers in a sports store when they come face to face with Kevin and his gang. Chased, they try to escape them by ducking out of trams and snucking into a cafe. But impatient to escape, the boys agree to visit Abdi’s kid brother in order to sort out who Sebastian’s phone belongs to. Little do they know that this is just the beginning, as they traipse across town, into the suburbs and beyond under the gang’s tacit control. Until finally, far from civilisation, they agree to a bet – all their valuables on a race to see who’s the fastest.
For a film about perpetrators and victims, Play really doesn’t do Alex, Sebastian and John any favours. Like lambs to the slaughter, they meekly follow their aggressors, asking permission to leave and barely attempting to escape. When Sebastian does flee, remaining on the tram after a fight with older lads, he’s scooped up again by Anas and brought excruciatingly back into the fold. There are other unseized opportunities to escape – when the gang’s attention is focused on taunting a dreadlocked tram passenger, the doors open and close and the boys remain unwatched. And while Alex and John negotiate a price of one hundred press-ups for their freedom instead of just leaving, Sebastian, refusing to participate any longer by climbing a tree, is talked back down and back into the game by Alex, stoking him with accusations of disloyalty. At the end, the boys neither contest the gang’s cheating that deprives them of their mobiles and wallets nor the tram guards who send their parents a 1,200 kronor fine.
For the most part, Sebastian, Alex and John throw themselves on the mercy of strangers, fobbed off by store owners that the police won’t care or their phone calls ignored by working mums. Like the boys, others are just as easily manipulated through sheer blunt persistence into involuntarily lending Kevin their headphones or performing in order to get them back. But Östlund’s title makes reference not only to the slick performance the gang put on, but also to the moral leeway between crime and boisterous play. The performance takes on another dimension too as the boys escape and we cut to the first tricked teenagers meeting one of their assailants again. The aggressor becomes victim in this urban reality of non-judicial street justice. And while we the audience know the context, it’s not as clear for the bystanders who intervene. Through their eyes we see two older white men attacking two black boys – a doubly heinous crime. Like the cradle that reappears in Anas’s possession and that dogs a train conductor’s journey to Malmö (illegally stowed in the gangway and blocking the doors), the moral at play here is the discomfort in others breaking the rules and escaping punishment. Like the Native Americans’ music making, gawked at by passersby, it’s a shocking and surreal break with the everyday – through fiction, performance, art and Play.
Like Haneke’s memorably antisocial Code Inconnu, Ruben Östlund’s Play is a comment on the awkwardness of social interaction and we’ve all been there – witness or victim to the unfathomable pranks and ploys of shit-stirring teenagers. Our responses as bystanders are mirrored back to us, but in a racial context; when Sebastian escapes on the tram surviving the elder boys’ roughhousing, a fellow traveller offers help as well as his name and address as witness. But for Nana, when the other boys turn on him for wimping out and going home, no such luck. For Östlund it’s not so much a question of how underprivileged immigrants turn nasty, as the reactions of a civilised society. And with performances and a script verging on the documentary, Play is an honest and disturbingly real reflection of life on both sides of the looking glass. A black mirror indeed.
Play is released on 12th July 2013 in the UK