Opening Cannes Film Festival to over nine minutes of standing ovation, Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall (La Tête Haute) not only heralds the first female director to do so since 1987 (the slot usually going to big names such as Baz Luhrmann and Woody Allen) but also the introduction of Rod Paradot, a young student discovered by Bercot and cast in the leading role of youth offender Malony Ferrandot.
Focussing upon the experiences of Paradot’s character, the film tracks the downward spiral of Malony’s relationship with the law and his internal struggles with anger and self-esteem. While conveying the concept of rehabilitation in its complex reality, the film does not fail to recognize the resilience of those who work with children in institutional support. Florence Blaque, played with fierce sincerity by Catherine Deneuve, is the juvenile judge tasked, repeatedly, with determining the fate of Malony. It’s telling that Blaque’s crowded magistrate office is the only reoccurring set within the film: scenes of institutionalised discipline becoming the only familiar environment for the young offender.
Opening with the chaotic environment of Blaque’s office, a baby Malony plays in the corner while his struggling mother cries and apologises for charges of neglect. The scene closes on a heartbreaking close-up of Malony’s tearful, toddler face and the precedent for his future years is set. We reopen a decade later and troubled Malony has stolen a car and taken it for a ride, an act which sees him sent back, yet again, to the magistrate’s office. People, the film declares, are not born violent and reckless: these things are learnt as a result of poor upbringing.
Paradot is central to Standing Tall, being the focus of almost every scene. His portrayal of the frustrated, lonely and anger fuelled teenager is authentic and moving. As professional adults surround him, discerning but worried looks upon their faces, Malony is seen shaking with boiling anger under the pressure of scrutiny, his entire body seeming outwith his own control. This is strong, understated acting, the kind of performance long-time professionals put months of training into achieving. Comparisons with Jack O’Connell’s role in last year’s unsettling Starred Up are relevant, but Standing Tall is more concerned with what makes a young boy so disenfranchised rather than the dangers of such disaffected acts of violence.
Naive about the limitations of the justice system the film is not, however the prevailing message is that public sector services are vital and valuable. As Malony walks out of the courthouse in the final scene the direction of his future is ambiguous, but what is clear is that any glimmers of hope are only due to those who are dedicated to the exhausting job of social support.
[Tara Fitzpatrick – @TFitzpatrick25]