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Family ties are tested in 2 engrossing international films

Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) witnesses her older brother (Günter Duret) being bullied in the Belgian film <em>Playground.</em>
Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) witnesses her older brother (Günter Duret) being bullied in the Belgian film Playground.

Ninety-two films were submitted for the international feature Oscar this year, competing for just five slots. That leaves a lot of movies, many of them terrific, that didn't get nominated. The two that I'm recommending this week might seem to have little in common — one is from Belgium, the other from Chad — but they're both deeply engrossing stories about the strength of family ties in hostile surroundings.

The brilliant Belgian drama Playground unfolds at an elementary school where we meet a sensitive 7-year-old girl named Nora, played by Maya Vanderbeque in one of the most extraordinary child performances I've seen recently. Nora goes to school with her older brother, Abel, and she soon learns that he's being viciously bullied by some of his classmates.

Nora tries to help, but Abel warns her not to tell anyone — not the teachers, the school administrators or even their father. Abel fears that any interference by grown-ups won't solve the problem and might only make him a bigger target.

The first-time writer-director Laura Wandel withholds as much as she reveals: The story unfolds over several weeks, but we never leave the school grounds or see anything of Nora's home life. We're completely immersed in her day-to-day school experience, and we see and hear only what she sees and hears. The camera remains at Nora's eye level throughout, as if to approximate a child's perspective. The adults loom over her, their heads cut off by the top of the frame, as if to suggest how oblivious they are to what's going on.

Abel becomes a laughingstock, humiliated by his tormentors and soon teased by everyone else. And before long he learns the terrible lesson that one way to stop being bullied is to become a bully yourself. All of this puts tremendous strain on Nora, and Vanderbeque captures her inner struggle to heartbreaking effect: Will she distance herself from her brother to save face, or will she figure out a way to help him? The movie resolves this tension in a way that feels both hopeful and despairing. It also left me thinking intently about my own 5-year-old and the everyday cruelties that kids inflict on each other on school playgrounds the world over.

The beautifully shot Lingui, the Sacred Bonds also centers on a secret that a child is reluctant to share with her parent. But this time, the story is told from the parent's perspective. Amina, played by Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, is an observant Muslim woman who lives with her 15-year-old daughter, Maria, in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. Maria, it turns out, is pregnant and has been expelled from her school.

Amina herself was just a teenager when she gave birth to Maria, and being a young single mom has cost her dearly; even now, people look down on her and she's been cut off from the rest of her family. Hoping to avoid a similar fate, Maria wants to have an abortion, and Amina agrees to help her.

At times Lingui, The Sacred Bonds might remind you of dramas like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, both of which are also about a young woman's struggles to end a pregnancy. But it's not as bleak or clinical as those films — partly because the director, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, has such a vibrant eye for color and texture, as we can see from the gorgeous robes that Amina wears. Haroun may be illuminating a real-world issue, but he's also made a visually lush melodrama about how women survive in a strictly religious community dominated by men.

We meet some of those men, like the local imam who scolds Amina for skipping prayer meetings or the older merchant who repeatedly asks Amina to marry him. But as the movie progresses, Amina finds strength and solidarity in unexpected places, and it's thrilling to watch as she renews the "sacred bonds" that connect her to the other women in her community. No less than Playground, Lingui is a story about fighting back — and a moving reminder that we're never as alone as we may think we are.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.