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Reliving Childhood

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Tribeca Festival

MOVIE REVIEW

Eternal Playground (2024)

Any movie about a group of friends reuniting after a funeral risks comparisons with “The Big Chill,” but this endearing French movie makes that simile a reach for two reasons: the characters are all in their mid-20s, and the location of their reunion is their old middle school. Literally. It’s where Gaspard (Andranic Manet) teaches music, and where he and his late sister, Louise (voiced in his thoughts by Noée Abita), also studied as kids. It’s in the center of Paris, but so ignored in the early summer holidays that Gaspard can sneak his mates in without anyone in the neighborhood noticing. It’s this combination of memory and invisibility that makes “Eternal Playground” a rewarding watch. It’s also a potent reminder to many American individuals what our me-first society has lost.

The gang is as follows: actress Esther (Carla Audebaud), music tech Adel (Alassane Diong), trainee doctor Alma (Nina Zamzem), train station attendant Anthony (Arcadi Radeff) and hot mess Lou (Alba-Gaïa Bellugi). Lou didn’t attend the funeral even though she was with Louise in Buenos Aires where she died. None of them did. This being the first time any of them have dealt with death is no excuse, so their guilt about skipping the funeral a few months ago is why they’ve showed up now. The plan is to mark Bastille Day, also Gaspard and Louise’s birthday, together in their old stomping ground. Of course their inseparable childhood gang broke up once they graduated, but there’s still enough intimacy between them for them all to jam in together in the teacher’s lounge and get into water fights in the courtyard. It’s clear Gaspard is struggling – the dances Mr. Manet does alone in the hallways are reminiscent of those in “Armand,” another school-set story featuring a character burdened by grief – and the friends would like to do more to help. But they are at the age where they have their own lives, Alma first among them, without quite the life experience to know what Gaspard needs. So they pick fights with each other. They drink the alcohol they find hidden around the building. Anthony moons after Esther. Adel moons after Alma. When the lights go out they all search for the circuit box together, shushing each other on the way. And the question is whether any of this will help any of them feel better.

Writers-directors Pablo Cotton and Joseph Rozé are exploring how our childhoods shape the adults we become, and how our early and largely forgotten friendships help – or hinder – us into growing into our best selves. Mr. Manet’s watchful neediness and Mr. Radeff’s cocksure confidence are the standouts in an evenly matched cast, but the trouble is the big plot twist isn’t all that. The anger with which the characters react to the reveal is disproportionate and unkind, but it’s needed for the grand finale, implausible as it may be. There’s a pleasing tendency in French art to show a group of friends unhesitatingly rally together regardless of the legal or criminal consequences, especially since this ride-or-die attitude no longer really exists in American culture. The fact that a group this scattered and disconnected will risk it all for someone they haven’t spoken to in years is really wonderful.

It’s this depiction of friendship that makes “Eternal Playground” worth seeing. One suspects the Tribeca Festival chose it to think about groups of people can be a collective, larger than the sum of its parts. The collective might be six people who haven’t all hung out together for a decade and who are not presently their best selves, but in the face of bigger issues that doesn’t matter. They’re friends. They take care of each other no matter what. And in the face of grief and catastrophe, isn’t that all we need?

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