'Standing Tall' ('La Tete haute'): Cannes Review

Standing Tall
We need to talk about Malony

Actress-director Emmanuelle Bercot kicks off Cannes with a drama co-starring Catherine Deneuve

Chronicling the turbulent teenage years of a French delinquent whose police record reads longer than the complete works of Marcel Proust, Standing Tall (La Tete haute) is a gritty and compassionate look at an adolescence riddled by violence, punishment and the idea that rehabilitation is a long way off, but not entirely out of the question.

Carried by an electric lead performance from newcomer Rod Paradot, this fourth feature from actress turned director Emmanuelle Bercot can be as volatile as it’s main character, delivering plenty of intensity but not always succeeding on the dramatic front, especially with a running time that ultimately outstays its welcome. Yet the dynamic acting — including supporting turns by Catherine Deneuve and Benoit Magimel — helps make for an engaging portrait of a quintessential Gallic bad boy who keeps fighting authority, no matter how much authority always wins.

A surprising choice to kick off an otherwise star-studded Cannes Film Festival, Standing Tall is not quite the rabble-rousing, explosive opener that could have been Mad Max: Fury Road, which premieres on the Croisette tomorrow. But it certainly dishes out its own measure of violent confrontations and unpredictable outbursts, all of them the work of 16-year-old provincial teen, Malony (Paradot) — whose uncontainable rage is what drives the film from start to finish. Call him Mad Malony.

First seen when he’s just out of pre-K and already making life miserable for his drug addicted single mom (Sara Forestier), we pick up Malony when he’s fifteen and raising hell as a thuggish car thief who goes on illicit joy rides like other French kids take tennis lessons. Supervised by a child court judge (Deneuve) and youth counselor, Yann (Magimel), who do everything in their power to keep him in line, Malony remains uncontrollable and gets sentenced time and again to juvenile detention.

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The script — by Bercot and Marcia Romano (Under the Sand) — follows our hero through what some may view as an extremely generous criminal justice system, offering the chaotic young man plenty of chances to redeem himself while trying to make him understand the consequences of his acts. On one occasion, he even gets a soothing facial massage from a nurse specializing in “self-esteem sessions.”

But a rabid dog like Malony has little interest in improving himself, at least early on, and is constantly pushed to the brink by a mother incapable of setting a good example, and an absent father from whom he’s inherited his penchant for nastiness. At the same time, and beyond a few moments where he puts others in danger — including a car accident that has a lasting impact on his behavior — Malony’s violence is generally shown to be self-directed, the boy constantly holding his head in his hands as if he can’t take it anymore.

While the antics can be compelling during the film’s early sections, they grow repetitive after the one-hour mark, at which point Bercot adds a few narrative twists, including a love story with a rebellious tomboy (Diane Rouxel from The Smell of Us) that feels artificial compared to the overall realism on display. More convincing are the tumultuous but tender relationships Malony has with his judge and his social worker, developing personal bonds that go beyond simple questions of law and order.

Indeed, the strongest scenes involve first-timer Paradot facing off against Deneuve or Magimel, the young actor’s twitchy intensity subdued by screen veterans who can do a lot without overamplifying every moment. Bercot already directed Deneuve in 2013's On My Way, and the two do terrific work again here, while Magimel (The Connection) is particularly impressive as a reformed thug still capable of pulling a few punches, providing what may be the film’s most moving scene when Yann breaks down in front of the child he’s meant to reform.

Yet the powerful turns don’t necessarily build towards a satisfying conclusion, in a film that starts off strong but can’t always decide whether it wants to keep it real or give viewers the sort of movie moments found in less-inventive dramas. The use of music by Franz Schubert and Arvo Part comes across as rather manipulative in this regard, while a handful of upbeat tracks — including KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” — mimic the frenzied state of Malony’s mind as he spins further out of control.

Ultimately, Standing Tall leaves us with a more hopeful message than one would expect from its opening reels, and Bercot is smart enough to show that it’s not necessarily the system, nor personal ties, that provide the solution, but an incalculable combination of both. Malony is any parent’s worst nightmare, not to mention living proof that the French are no better at childrearing than anyone else, yet he may have a big enough heart to save himself. In the end and against all odds, the kid might actually be all right.

Production company: Les Films du Kiosque
Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Rod Paradot, Benoit Magimel, Sara Forestier, Diane Rouxel
Director: Emmanuelle Bercot
Screenwriters: Emmanuelle Bercot, Marcia Romano
Producers: Francois Kraus, Denis Pineau-Valencienne
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Eric Barboza
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Julien Leloup
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Elsa Pharaon, Karen Hottois, Raphaelle Beck
International sales: Elle Driver

No rating, 118 minutes