Tackling a topic you can’t film, victims you don’t want to identify and a subject from which most auds naturally recoil in horror, helmer Libby Spears works certain wonders with “Playground,” a state-of-the-union address on the sexual exploitation of American children. Thoughtful, sensitive and broader in its indictments than most treatments of the subject, the doc inevitably will struggle theatrically, but may find a niche on cable and in the educational market. Pic opened Sept. 4 for a one-week Oscar-qualifying run.
Spears, with a roster of producing partners that includes George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, constructs a quasi-thriller amid the clinical reportage and expert testimonies concerning the 300,000 American kids currently at risk of being sexually exploited and a criminal justice system that deems children too young to have consensual sex, but not too young to be arrested for prostitution (a logical inconsistency that has Spears’ experts incensed).
Over the three years of her filming, Spears searches for Michelle Brown, a perfect human storm of childhood abuse, incarceration and legal malpractice. That she finds Brown alive is a shock in itself, given what we learn about the fate of most abuse victims and their treatment by the system. What we learn about her life is not so surprising.
The docu has a treasure in the late Jan Hindman, a sex-abuse researcher and one of the saner voices on the subject — and on a culture that seems to promote the eroticization of children. It’s not what we’ve done to abusers, she says, that makes them what they are. It’s what we haven’t done — teach them to be functioning humans without a need for instant gratification, who don’t feel entitled to indulge their every whim. She’s sympathetic but common-sensical, in a way that’s both enlightening and refreshing.
Spears takes aim at the political culture, too, one that struggles to limit sex education, then criminalizies young people who act out sexually. While railing against the crimes committed against children and the people who commit them, she also makes the point that larger numbers of people have been categorized as sex offenders for crimes ranging wildly from child rape to public urination.
Production values are tops, notably Yoshitomo Nara’s animated children, who pop up intermittently to add mute comment to the proceedings. They’re adorable, and just a little bit angry.