Dir. Emmanuelle Bercot. Fr. 2015, 119mins
The most down-to-earth Cannes opening film in living memory, Standing Tall (La Tete Haute) shows the festival flying the flag for the grand tradition of French social realism. As the title suggests, Emmanuelle Bercot’s film is a redemption drama ending on a high note - but it takes us over some rough terrain en route, in the story of a delinquent’s experiences in the French juvenile justice system. A turn to hard-tacks realism from writer-director Bercot, following her relaxed Catherine Deneuve vehicle, 2013’s On My Way, Standing Tall is an honourable if rarely surprising addition to the tradition of French films about challenged childhoods - although it’s no 400 Blows.
Standing Tall can’t be faulted for energy and for seriousness - and offers a rare case of a troubled-teen drama in which the justice system is seen as entirely benevolent, and a source of succour to troubled souls.
The film’s prime distinction - which should give it moderate box-office clout when it opens in France shortly after its Cannes premiere - is a set of potent performances, from Deneuve and Benoît Magimel, but also from young newcomer Rod Paradot as anti-hero Malony.
The story begins with Malony aged six, showing up with his young single mother (Forestier) in the Dunkirk office of juvenile judge Florence Blaque (Deneuve). The meeting quickly erupts into one of the frenetic emotional splurges that too repetitively punctuate the film, but it establishes the film’s parameters. To wit, Malony will have a tough fight for survival, given his anarchically dysfunctional upbringing.
An inveterate car thief and social rebel, Malony nevertheless has a tenacious surrogate aunt watching his back in the form of Mme Blaque - Deneuve, incarnating unflappable authority with characteristic grace. He also acquires a no-bullshit counselor (Magimel), who isn’t afraid to show tough love in the form of an odd thump.
Magimel is the film’s ace card: the actor has entered a phase of leather-tough gravitas that gives him something of the authoritative presence of Gérard Depardieu in his prime. Forestier too makes her character appealingly vulnerable, although her tendency to overdo Maman’s unruly personality isn’t helped by an awkward set of special-effects teeth.
Bercot and co-writer Marcia Romano don’t always show a sure hand in pacing the narrative, which mainly follows Malony, aged 16, through various facilities and numerous clashes with authorities and peers, to diminishing effect. Worked for subtler emotional tones, is Malony’s developing relationship with girlfriend Tess (a quietly tough turn from Diane Rouxel).
The use of classical music (Bach, Schubert, Arvo Pärt) is gratingly on-the-nose. Visually too, the film, though polished enough, often feels somewhat functional. But Standing Tall can’t be faulted for energy and for seriousness - and offers a rare case of a troubled-teen drama in which the justice system is seen as entirely benevolent, and a source of succour to troubled souls. A cast of young supporting unknowns enhances the realist rawness.
Production company: Les Films du Kiosque International sales: Elle Driver, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: François Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne
Screenplay: Emmanuelle Bercot, Marcia Romano
Cinematography: Guillaume Schiffman
Editor: Julien Leloup
Production design: Eric Barboza
Main cast: Catherine Deneuve, Rod Paradot, Benoît Magimel, Sara Forestier, Diane Rouxel