Grief is uncontainable. It thrives in spirals free of end-of-the-night Tupperware container promises; it ebbs and flows in an existence that refuses compartmentalization; it is the pitchest of blacks, and that’s how it likes it. But grief is navigable. Though it can’t be tucked away into tiny, neat boxes labeled “loss” or “pain,” or any of the seven stages popularly attributed to it, it can be worked through. The distinction important to be aware of regarding this truth is rather juvenile, admittedly. It’s the Finding Nemo mantra: you must go through it, not over it. Acknowledging grief and processing loss is nuanced for its emotional weight in real-life instances — and it’s portrayed in expectedly varied ways, because that’s how real life works — but what is to be said for how grief is shown in film?
It seems grief on the screen settles on a spectrum that excludes any middle gray: it’s either explosive or introversive. The “going through it” is often depicted in lamp/plate/any other breakable object smashing on hardwood floors or against freshly-painted walls by the person experiencing the grief. And if they’re not smashing, they’re shutting down. Films default to sweeping pans of dimly-lit, dusty bedrooms of characters who’ve neglected personal and household hygiene; up-close shots of full dinner plates being fork mutilated in an effort to show a sadness-induced loss of appetite; and somber music played over coffeeshop scenes where a character can barely muster more than single-syllable answers.
This is not to say that these handlings of grief are inherently wrong. (Implying that would make me a generally awful person, and I fancy myself a very not generally awful person.) It is, however, to say that this dichotomous portrayal of loss and its aftermath is not the only one — and that they are fairly unrealistic in comparison to actual experience, as every person dealing with grief deals with it differently. While the two cinematic types serve a punchy purpose to hook an audience in, at least for the length of the film, they do not necessarily go through grief. They go over it, using inflation and dramatization of emotion and experience to replicate the discomfort and desolation grief often incites in a person. And, perhaps worst of all, because these hyperreal presentations are so centered on the bleakness surrounding grief, they snuff out any promise for a fulfilling life post-loss.
Thankfully, film as a whole is not entirely without this hope; there still exist stories that handle grief with a remarkable and unmatched dexterity and tenderness. Ones that look it dead in the face and take it for everything its worth, ones that don’t shy away from any of its tough spots like the fatty part of an otherwise fantastic-looking steak. There is consolation in knowing there are films that have a light they wouldn’t dare let dwindle.
The most recent and most arresting example of such a film is Playground, a short film co-written and co-directed by Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul. Gilbert and Paul are something of a filmmaking superforce, one that triggers a Pavlovian reaction in an audience member or critic: if you see Gilbert, Paul or the doubled-up pairing appear in a film’s opening credits, you anticipate greatness. The pseudo-duo’s previous films (the gripping-in-different-ways Blue Sushi and Rocks That Bleed), along with their separate endeavors (e.g., Gilbert’s Let It Be and Paul’s Friend Like Me and One Another), have time and again crafted worlds of whimsy amongst deep realism. Neither Gilbert nor Paul are strangers to getting their hands dirty in emotion when they craft — and don’t ever seem to make a point to avoid it, either. Expectedly, Playground is no exception.
At its heart, Playground‘s story is a fairly simple one. The elevator-pitch synopsis might go something like, “The seemingly put-together Ezra loses his younger brother, and it takes a wooden cage, a broken rocket ship, and the vanquishing of a nasty beast to help him come to terms with his death.” Granted, that in no way does the film justice, but the point here is that from the jump, Playground does not overcomplicate grief — even with its unconventional approach and playful quaintness. But it doesn’t underplay it, either.
Aboard a too-small-for-his-size bike, Ezra (a wonderfully-cast Chris Kendall) makes his way to his unnamed (though many have speculated on a particular identity) younger brother’s funeral service. His smart suit and tie is softened with the charm of a slightly off-center helmet, a juxtaposition made striking when Ezra tumbles over a line of taut twine along his journey, and the camera zeroes in on his pained expression. Into the forest Ezra is dragged, not by force but by the desire to repossess his stolen bike, and is taken prisoner by the Committee: a gang of sharp-witted and inventive kids looking to make use of Ezra’s strength, stature and bike parts.
What ensues is grief contextualized in slight fantasy as both Ezra and the audience are lead by the hand down the path of “going through it.” It’s winsome and wondrous, and Ezra quickly loses track of time and place as he inches toward accepting his brother’s death. While some may argue that this escapist element present in Playground around which the bulk of Ezra’s coming to terms is told negates the real handling of grief, upon examining the details, they will find that each emotion is acknowledged, processed and accepted with a valiant deftness throughout the film. There is the initial dissolution of fear when Ezra agrees to help the Committee, followed by an adventure mission he progressively becomes more invested in, leading to the climax where Ezra accepts that he must go and face his brother’s death head-on. It is, at once, beautiful and breaking.
The ways in which Playground navigates grief is akin to the sharp humanness seen in feature-length films like 21 Grams and Beginners — and even the Pixar heart-tugger, Up. (Yes, really.) The common denominator in these films on grief is the complete disregard for trivialization; grief isn’t made something to gawk at, it’s shown as something that is both real and unavoidable. Healthily accepting loss and overcoming grief is summed perfectly when Ezra speaks with Puck (Zachary Loonie) inside the newly-restored rocket: “You knew this was coming. You knew from the start, right? So what now? Are you just gonna resent all those memories, destroy all our hard work, disown the people closest to you? Or are you gonna be brave and face it? Face that I… that I have to leave?” In actuality, it seems Ezra is speaking to himself, or is vocalizing what he knows his younger brother would say to him in the wake of his death.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sammy Paul early last year to chat about YouTube and his personal filmmaking ventures, and what was revealed was this exact sense of how humanity can settle in written work. Stack that up with Gilbert’s equally intuitive, stunning storytelling and scene work, and it is no wonder that Playground shines. This type of emotional intelligence was seen before in the pair’s previous works and was clearly naturally carried over to Playground, but the strengths of the film in question exist in its subtleties. Feelings are not secretive, sacrilegious or meant to be scandalized in Playground; they just are. A tight hug with Puck, an exasperated sigh, a smile with a mouthful of ice cream — all the ways Ezra works through the loss of his brother exist naturally. Even with a creature known as a “snip diddler,” a pink-blood-covered wooden sword and a rocket ship that runs on acorns, Playground is wholly real. It is human in its perspective, and that’s what sets it apart.
On the surface, Bertie Gilbert and Sammy Paul’s Playground is an aesthetically kitschy, almost kaleidoscopic tale of a 20-something who learns a thing or two after being captured by a four-strong band of adolescent forest-dwellers. But if you reach out just a little further to touch it (it doesn’t take much; the sentiment lingers close to the top), you’ll see it for its astounding emotional intelligence and its uniquely keen ability to work through grief without swallowing whole its characters, its story or its heart. It never buckles to too-bold behavior, sticks to its central warmth and ties up arcs with a fulfilling feeling. Though Playground is a story of loss, the film closes with what is to be gained — and it promises to leave the light on.