It’s the first day of public school for seven-year-old Nora (Vanderbeque), and predictably she’s nervous. At least she has older brother Abel (Doret) beside her. We soon learn Nora’s anxiety is justified, as her school seems more like an impersonal, overcrowded institution than a warm, welcoming place to learn. Her only source of comfort is one kind but distracted teacher, Madame Agnes (Verlinden), who senses Nora’s pain but can do little to help. Nora notices Abel being constantly bullied by a group of his classmates. Humiliated, Abel swears her to secrecy. When she finally tells their father (Leklou), things only seem to get worse.
Wandel’s tight, powerful film is so effectively realized that many viewers will be shocked to discover they’re not watching a documentary. Such is the observational realism she achieves, not to mention the astonishingly natural, heartrending performances she coaxes from her cast, particularly juvenile players Vanderbeque and Doret. One ingenious touch is to keep the camera at the children’s height, which reminds us all just how scary being a little kid at the start of school could be. Winner of “Un Certain Regard” at Cannes, this memorable, affecting film is a must-see for any parent- past, present, or future.