Few films in 2023 will surprise like Tribeca 2023 feature Playland. The documentary/dramatic recreation astounds with the creativity packed into every frame. Director Georden West creates a beautiful collage that shifts between time periods, visual styles, and mediums to create a beautiful work of art. While there’s not much of a narrative to adhere to, the visual sensations of Playland are unlike most films.
Playland serves as a love letter to Boston’s oldest gay bar. The actual bar closed at the end of the 1990s, after decades as serving as a safe space for the gay community. West revives those who once frequented the bar, allowing the characters to interact and enjoy a sendoff for their regular hangout. As the timelines overlap with each other, absurd characters and even stranger costumes overlap. Sequences of archival footage are woven into the dominant recreations, which often focus on visual splendor. Playland not only creates moments of joy but genuine terror and unsettling tension.
There are few films quite like Playland. The most recent feature to inspire similar feelings was Will-o’-the-Wisp, which played last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Yet Playland chooses to stray even further from traditional narratives. Instead, the assembly of images and characters bends space-time and rarely participates in dialogue. Despite this, the actors deliver brilliant non-verbal performances.
Drag performers Lady Bunny and Danielle Cooper appear as two of the many patrons of the space. In many ways, their arrival adds to the nature of reclaiming historical LGBTQ+ culture that courses throughout the film. Whispers, the occasional opera singer, and a harrowing score from composer Aaron Michael Smith deliver a transcendent auditory experience.
Meanwhile, West’s vision helps craft a unique spine for Playland. The production design from Sarah Kahl and Brent Garbowski brilliantly brings the world to life. Jo Jo Lam‘s cinematography is slick and well-blocked. The framing is exceptional and adds to the emotional power of many images. West and co-editor Russell Sheaffer arrange the narrative in such a way that you can feel the changing mood on screen. This results in a final montage that drives home the love-letter aspect of Playland.
While Playland will not be for everyone, any fans of artistic and non-traditional cinema will be impressed. The pure emotion and artistry of Playland make it an undeniable experience. The choice to finish the feature within seventy-five minutes speaks to the strong vision by West. When the final credits roll, we are still in love with the premise and in love with the spectacle delivered to us. The fact that West pays homage to LGBTQ+ history helps remind us to celebrate the stories and spaces of the past.