Challenges in the urban life of modern young adults in their late twenties and early thirties have been a favourite subject for many youngish contemporary Finnish directors understandable, since it is often a good idea to tell stories about what you know best. Pihalla, also known as Playground, is director Tony Laine's first feature film and deals with themes like parenthood and marriage.
Laura (Sibel Kekilli) from Hamburg, Germany is married to a workaholic Finnish man named Arto (Teemu Palosaari) with whom she has a 10-month old baby. When Arto gets a good job offer, Laura agrees to move to Tampere, Finland with him but comes to doubt if it was a good idea after all. The cold, wintery city does not feel very welcoming, the people are sullen and withdrawn and Laura feels lonely during her days at home alone behind the language barrier. Eventually she ends up joining a single mothers' support group and makes some friends, but most importantly meets a handsome rock singer Tero (Mikko Leppilampi) who often comes to the group to play music for the kids. Suddenly Laura doesn't feel so lonely anymore, but things are not that simple for a married woman.
An obvious comparison that comes to mind when hearing the premise of Playground is Lenka Hellstedt's Overseas and Under Your Skin (a.k.a. Maata meren alla) which deals with a Finnish woman moving to Germany and was coincidentally released in 2009 too. The whole "loneliness of a foreigner" approach is also reminiscent of Sofia Coppola's masterpiece Lost in Translation (2003), even though Playground ultimately goes for a more down-to-earth atmosphere and plot. It is also more of a drama than Hellstedt's film and focuses largely on examining responsibility in marriage when the children are very small.
Perhaps the emphasis on the parenthood angle is why I couldn't really get into the story or identify with any of the characters, although viewers older than me may find it more interesting. The protagonist Laura is the most interesting character to me with her feelings of outsiderness; other characters representing different kinds of attitudes to relationships include for example the cynical Riina (Sanna-June Hyde) and the carefree Tero. Over all the tone remains quite light and things resolve a bit too easily to my taste, even though a cathartic showdown finale would have also been out of place in a small scale story like this one.
Visually Playground is pretty nice, the cinematography and colours help the gray city to feel less hostile a place (Finnish cities in the winter tend to be anything but beautiful) and some atmospheric scenes are beautifully lit. I also liked Kekilli's performance as Laura. Nevertheless, I was not particularly enthralled by the plot and cannot award it a very high rating for now. On the other hand, I am sure the story is better suited for people with kids and families of their own, so I'm not saying Playground is necessarily a bad movie just not for me at this point of my life.
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