Emmanuelle Bercot’s sophomore film is the story of Malony (Rod Paradot), a teenager prone to crime, and the justice system which only wants the best for him.
Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall is a bizarre combination: both gritty and told through rose-coloured glasses. It’s the coming-of-age story of Malony (Rod Paradot), a teenager prone to violence and crime who is in constant battle with a justice system, which, remarkably, only wants the best for him. We first meet him as a six-year-old, when his neglectful teenage mother is called in to meet with the local children’s magistrate (Catherine Deneuve) and comes prepared with his belongings packed. She’s decided to unleash him onto the system; he’s scared and alone.
The next time we see him, he’s 15, bouncing in and out of foster care, group homes, and juvenile detention. He’s self-destructive and incapable of taking responsibility for his actions. Even though he can’t bear to be separated from his mother (Sara Forestier), she can barely take care of herself. He’s rebelling against the lack of authority in his home life, and the state is forced to pick up the slack.
Over the course of the next two years, we watch as the state’s agents work to help Malony sort himself out before he hits the age of majority. The magistrate — a sensitive woman unafraid to rule with tough love — is the closest thing he has to a useful mother, offering a helping hand whenever she can even as she sends him to jail when she’s got no other choice. The state social worker Yann (Benoît Magimel) talks sense into Malony, helping him through each stage of his rehabilitation, even when he himself feels there’s little hope. And Malony’s lawyer is there with him through each case of drunk driving, petty theft, and violence, fighting for the state to support a boy who has nobody else.
Malony struggles to fit into civilized society; his hot temper doesn’t help. Having skipped years of school, he can barely hold a pen. The simple exercise of writing a letter to beg a local school to take him as a student — his history of violence, disobedience, and expulsion makes this an uphill battle — is enough to send him screaming out of the classroom, frustrated and embarrassed. He’s constantly breaking rules, even if it’s for well-intentioned reasons — like breaking his brother out of his foster home for a family Christmas. His record is so marred that he’s lost hope in ever living a normal life. After one indiscretion he simply announced, “just add it to my record.”
First-time actor Paradot — bearing an uncanny likeness to Antoine-Olivier Pilon, who played a similar character in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy— gives a wonderful performance as a boy incapable of positively and productively expressing his feelings. Even as he grows to see the magistrate as a parental figure, it takes him years to admit it to her. He’ll send her gifts, like a rock for a paperweight, and he’s overjoyed to see it on her desk — but his emotional intelligence is almost non-existent. We see how deeply he’s been scarred by his mother’s indifference and selfishness.
Malony’s tentative romance with Tess (Diane Rouxel), the tomboy daughter of one of his tutors, is both touching and somewhat disingenuous. It’s encouraging that the sight of Tess showing Yann her fighting skills is the first time we see Malony genuinely smile. But he’s terrified of intimacy: he’s borderline abusive, physically and emotionally, because he likes her so much. Bercot shows us that Tess isn’t merely a victim here; she understands the emotions that underlie Malony’s bad behaviour, which makes her willing to give him a second chance. Less credible is the fact that this smart young woman decides to give up everything to have Malony’s child when she gets accidentally pregnant — they’re too immature to think about birth control — and for the two of them to decide that keeping the child is a good idea. Even Malony had reservations because he knows what it’s like to be unwanted though he expressed them cruelly.
But the most ridiculous part of Malony’s romance with Tess is that becoming a teen parent is what finally snaps Malony out of his self-destruction and pushes him to take control of his life. Worse, Bercot expects us to forgive all of Malony’s cruelty and root for Tess to become a teen parent: their relationship may be sweet, but it seemed like Tess had potential she’s blindly giving up for Malony, who is still a loser, even if we empathize with him.
Remarkably, Malony’s only struggles are with his inner demons — not the world around him. Nearly every authority figure he meets, aside from the school principal who only sees him as trouble, is kind, patient, and supportive. Malony’s main problem is is deep mistrust, which leads him to repeat his own mistakes to test the extent of their loyalty. While it’s important to see the dedicated people in these often thankless jobs get their cinematic due, it strains believability that Malony never even once encounters someone who is not in his corner. Even the prison warden looks at him with sympathy on Malony’s first day, when he’s crying in his cell, foetal, missing his mother.
Reality is much rougher than this seemingly gritty film suggests. There are good people in the system, but it’s hardly perfect and abuses aren’t uncommon. Standing Tall never even attempts a nuanced exploration of the difficulties of navigating life without a real parent and how it robs you of privileges that are for many children commonplace. Where television’s The Fosters is clear-eyed, Standing Tall is overly optimistic. For a film that often aims for social realist grit, it shares many of the same problems as Mon Roi, the Cannes film in which Bercot starred: it romanticizes difficult men and the people around them.