CANNES – It doesn't take long to understand the important message Emmanuelle Bercot wants to convey with her new drama “La tête haute” (Standing Tall).” Effectively, she wants you to know that the juvenile court system can be used to positively affect the lives of troubled youth, but if and only if the people involved care enough to stick by their kids. To Bercot's credit, it's a particular point of view that you rarely hear of outside of documentaries and hour-long news programs. Unfortunately, “Standing Tall” takes way too long to reach its happy ending.
The opening film of the 68th Festival du Cannes, “Standing Tall” begins with the camera focusing on 6-year-old Malony (Enzo Trouillet). His mother (Sara Forestier) has been brought in front of a local juvenile court judge (Catherine Deneuve) over concerns about the care of her two boys. Bercot keeps the camera mostly on Malony as he horrifyingly watches his mother completely lose it with a diva moment that would make any Bravo TV executive proud. She basically abandons him to the authorities and this is just the beginning of his rough upbringing. We quickly fast forward to a 15-year-old Malony (Rod Paradot), who is once again in front of Ms. Deneuve to deal with the consequences of stealing yet another car. He's soon headed to the French equivalent of a youth detention center where the adults caring for him believe he might just turn things around.
As you can guess, Malony's first visit only does some good. Before long the stress of being stuck in the court system and the pressures of an irresponsible mother prompt him to act out once again. (Malony really likes to steal cars, but we're reminded it's only in the most non-violent way possible.) This kid has a lot of anger in him and every step forward he makes with his life appears to result in two steps backward. One example finds him spending a good deal of time to improve his writing and learning skills, but when he meets with the principal of the last local school that could admit him, things go terribly wrong. The only glimmer of hope for his future appears to come from his relationship with Tess (Diane Rouxel), the daughter of one of his detention center teachers. After an intimate scene that gets mightily uncomfortable for two under-age characters, Bercot is able to use Tess to show Malony in a more sympathetic light.
Unlike other stories that have touched on this subject, almost every counselor, teacher, nurse or security guard is rooting for our hero to grow up. They are almost always supportive and significantly more lenient than you can ever imagine. Malony isn't really getting tough love, but patient love. At times the minuscule consequences of Malony's crimes are simply unbelievable, but Bercot's long play (and it's definitely a good 15 minutes too long) is that you'll eventually sympathize with the benefits a kinder hand can bring.
While Bercot's intentions are admirable, she and co-screenwriter Marcia Romano have conjured up too many moments that play out like thousands of courtroom scenes you've seen before. The amount of detail Bercot wants to spend on legal formalities and paperwork is simply puzzling. Moreover, the film's tone is very uneven. The artful detail that follows Malony on his many illegal adventures feels dramatically different than his time in each youth detention center and light years from the stiff confines of his numerous visits to the Judge's office. The fact that the story is so repetitive only exacerbates the situation.
Assisting Bercot is an expectedly steady and compassionate turn by Deneuve as a judge who really cares about her “kids.” The cinematic legend is still an impressive force on the screen and brings more life to the script's dry dialogue than it deserves. Newcomer Paradot, on the other hand, delivers an uneven performance. He often resorts to caricature when depicting Malony early in the picture, but is eventually able to convince us he's matured along the way.
“Standing Tall” opens in France on Thursday and is currently looking for distribution in the U.S.