A gang of five boys of African origin from the wrong side of Gothenburg’s tracks scam a trio of slightly younger middle-class kids in “Play,” Swedish helmer Ruben Ostlund’s formally interesting but overlong third feature. Pic is a little too pleased with its own evenhanded presentation of liberal moral conundrums, but there’s no gainsaying Ostlund’s remarkable achievement in coaxing entirely naturalistic perfs from his young core cast, which improvises the dialogue throughout. “Play” looks likely to frolic at further fests, and might even secure limited theatrical distribution beyond Scandinavia, traveling further than Ostlund’s last, “Involuntary.”
A quintet of black kids (Anas Abdirahman, Yannick Diakite, Abdiaziz Hilowle, Nana Manu and Kevin Vaz) use intimidation tactics and complex head games with three better-off kids (two of them, Sebastian Blyckert and Sebastian Hegmar, are white, and one, John Ortiz, is Asian-looking)in a tale inspired by a local news story about a cohort of Gothenburg kids who pulled the same trick on others over a period of years.
The purpose of the exercise isn’t just to get material goods, which they could simply mug off the middle-class kids at any point. The perpetrators clearly enjoy making their victims squirm, playing good-cop/bad-cop dynamics in what’s effectively a bit of sadistic street theater; hence the pic’s dual-meaning, English-language title.
Moreover, the black kids are entirely aware that their skin color gives them an upper hand, not just because they know their victims are likely to be afraid of African immigrants, but more importantly because they’re sure that the whites’ shame about having such fears in the first place will inhibit their attempts to run away or get help from grown-ups. So wary is everyone about the race issue that no one even uses the word “black” until near the end, and even then it’s one of the children of color. Lest all this makes the Afro-Swedish kids look too much like the villains, Ostlund throws in a confrontation between one of them and the father of one of the white kids, to the horror of liberal onlookers, who see only a white guy bullying a poor black kid.
In other words, the screenplay over-milks the morality angle, producing what feels sometimes like a core text for high-school civics class. It’s a flaw in an otherwise impressively assembled work that uses the latest generation of Red cameras to capture long-held shots that, per press notes, were so high-resolution that editors Ostlund and Jacob Schulsinger could readjust the framing in post-production, apparently the first time the technique has been used for a feature.
Within these precisely composed frames, the drama compels most of the time, especially when the loyalties and allegiances begin to shift among the eight youngsters, who were all non-pros when the pic was made. That said, it’s no surprise to learn that one of them, standout Vaz, is now pursuing a career in acting, so good is his performance here as the duplicitous “good cop” who’s secretly that gang’s ringleader.
All the same, pic is about half an hour longer than it needs to be, and could have dispensed entirely with a subplot very reminiscent of a similar story in “Involuntary.”