Standing Tall – first look

Cannes gets serious with a social-realist slice of juvenile delinquency for its opening night.

Read all our reviews and coverage from Cannes 2015.

Geoff Andrew
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Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Be they good or (more often than not) bad, the films that get to open the Cannes Film Festival – at least for the quarter-century I’ve been in attendance – have usually tended towards the spectacular or lightweight; one suspects most of the time that they’ve been chosen because they won’t require too much soul-searching of the ritzy opening-night audience and will provide a decent dose of celebrity glamour for the walk up the steps.

This year’s opener is different, however, and not only because it’s the first to have been directed by a woman since Diane Kurys kicked off the 1987 edition of Cannes with A Man in Love. No, Emmanuelle Bercot’s movie is different primarily because it’s a serious slice of social realism about a likewise serious question: how we, as society, should best deal with the thoroughly alienated and criminally delinquent young. And while it may boast one major star (Catherine Deneuve) and a couple of fairly well known actors (Benoît Magimel and Sara Forestier), that’s hardly a grade-A red carpet turnout for the crowds on the Croisette, especially when the film’s protagonist is played by Rod Paradot, an unknown first-timer yet to exit his teens.

Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Perhaps Thierry Frémaux and his team felt the need to present something less escapist than usual given the mood in France following the Charlie Hebdo killings. Whatever, Bercot’s film is a solid enough film in the well-established tradition of French realism, even though its slightly repetitive narrative tests credibility here and there.

Paradot gives a very persuasive performance as Malony, the son of a loving but conspicuously less-than-capable single mother (Forestier), who first finds himself in the Dunkerque office of a juvenile judge (Deneuve) at the age of six. By the time he’s into his teens, stealing cars and getting into scrapes as a matter of course, he’s such a regular visitor there that she takes an almost maternal ongoing interest in his case, appointing as his counsellor a young man who’s formerly had troubles of his own (Magimel). The film’s title suggests that with their help, Malony’s eventually going to straighten himself out – though since he goes off the rails so very often, over so many years, and gives very little indication of being able to control himself when he’s upset or angry, you do begin to wonder whether the title might be ironic after all.

Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Standing Tall (La Tête haute, 2015)

Though it has some clumsy narrative ellipses and some woefully obvious musical choices (Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel mit Spielge and the second movement from Schubert’s E-flat piano trio are merely the most predictable), the film does get by thanks to the strength of the performances throughout, but particularly those of Magimel and Deneuve. (Forestier is less consistent, perhaps partly due to shortcomings in the script’s conception of her character.)

Bercot’s no-frills direction also helps to keep things mostly on track; the repeated knock-backs do suggest a certain down-to-earth authenticity, even if individual events stretch belief. You might sometimes suspect that the depiction of the social care and judicial systems errs towards the optimistic – Bercot has said that she wanted to show the commitment, abnegation and patience of people working in the field – but it’s certainly a film that wants to look in some depth at a pressing problem. Indeed, when an ethnically very diverse group of inmates at one of the juvenile detention centres in which Malony’s holed up embark on a heated discussion about racial inequality and injustice, one of the speakers asks what can one expect: this, after all, is France.

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