Standing Tall, a French drama about the dogged efforts made by social services to salvage the life of a juvenile delinquent, opens with a scene that’s meant to put us squarely on the kid’s side. First seen at roughly age 6, Malony Ferrandot (Enzo Trouillet) sits warily in the office of a magistrate, Judge Blaque (Catherine Deneuve), as his extremely young mother (Sara Forestier) abdicates all responsibility for him—first verbally, and then by actually getting up and leaving him behind, yelling over her shoulder that someone else can deal with him from now on. The movie then jumps forward a decade, with teenage newcomer Rod Paradot taking over the role of Malony, who’s become a habitual car thief and discipline case, forever on the verge of exploding into a rage. No matter how self-destructive his behavior gets, however, it’s impossible not to remember the sad little boy from the prologue, which makes it easier to understand why Judge Blaque and various other adults stubbornly refuse to declare Malony a lost cause.
Co-written and directed by Emmanuelle Bercot (On My Own), who’s also a well-known actor in France (she stars opposite Vincent Cassel in the forthcoming My King), Standing Tall opened last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was received with a collective shrug by the foreign press. At home, by contrast, the film was nominated for nine Césars, including Best Picture. The disparity makes perfect sense. Standing Tall isn’t so much a character study, or even a narrative, as it is an earnest paean to France’s social support network, celebrating the public servants who step in when parents fail. Consequently, it’s pretty much two solid hours of adults keeping their cool and maintaining their empathy while Malony splits his time between yelling profanities, throwing things in frustration, and staring sullenly at his shoes. Everything feels realistic and acutely observed, but there’s not a lot of variation involved. Compared to, say, the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike, which likewise features a troubled child rescued by improbable kindness, Standing Tall lacks any urgency or forward motion. It just keeps marveling at the system’s patience.
A non-professional making his screen debut, Paradot serves up plenty of volatility, but he never quite succeeds in making Malony seem like a kid with real potential that’s being squandered. That makes the efforts on his behalf all the more heroic, arguably, and perhaps the film would have done better to focus on his long-suffering counselor, Yann (Benoît Magimel, who won the Best Supporting Actor César), a former delinquent who identifies too strongly with the boys in his care. Or it could have delved into the difficulties faced by Deneuve’s judge. Instead, Bercot, true to her instincts as an actor, opts for an approach that prioritizes screaming and crying and other outbursts, mistaking loud for compelling. Malony lashes out over and over until the time finally comes for him to mature, which he magically does by having a child with his tomboy girlfriend (Diane Rouxel). The final shot suggests that the system has turned him around, but it’s hard not to worry that the baby he’s holding will be the next sad little abandoned boy.