Film Review: Standing Tall

Tough, vivid drama about a brutal young delinquent features marvelous performances from the entire cast and startling ones from Catherine Deneuve and César Best Newcomer Rod Paradot.
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Standing Tall is a gripping film, though simply structured in its focused story of a violent teen whom the French legal system just can’t seem to tame and the awful elements in his background that partially clarify his situation. Patient audiences who value quality films expertly played and with terrific craftsmanship throughout, including actress and here co-writer and director Emmanuelle Bercot’s handling of difficult material, will behold a treat. But this one doesn’t go down smoothly.

Plot-wise, what mainly holds interest here is whether the system can tame a young criminal. That is 16-year-old Malony (Rod Paradot in a role that’s hard to believe is his first), a brutish, bullying and sexually violent offender who makes other iconic screen delinquents like those in Blackboard Jungle or A Clockwork Orange almost seem mellow. He’s the product of a terrible upbringing: His single, very young mother (Sara Forestier) abandoned him when he was six, as drugs and the wrong men are more her thing than maternal duties. In his current state as a frequent visitor to juvenile court, she has almost given up on him.

The court’s strict but compassionate judge, Florence (Catherine Deneuve), nearing retirement, has seen Malony often through the years. This latest appearance (his specialty is stealing cars and exploding into violence whenever) has him at another hearing with Florence, his defense lawyer (Christophe Meynet) and the prosecutor (Martin Loizillon). Also present is Malony’s gruff grandfather (apparently the only paternal figure in Malony’s life), who, like his daughter, couldn’t care less about the fate of the boy.

Florence’s decision is to spare Malony jail and give him a light six-month sentence of confinement to a rural juvenile correctional facility in the lovely French countryside (more an airbnb-like destination than punishing). The approximate $800 a day the government spends for his upkeep there and the picturesque locale and outdoor meals suggest two metaphoric Michelin stars.

But Malony gets into brawls with fellow inmates and struggles with learning. On a brighter note, he meets young Tess (Diane Rouxel), a teacher’s daughter, and a relationship will ensue. In the meantime, he escapes the facility, steals a car, gets into trouble and again lands before the Judge. She has at the hearing Yann (French star Benoît Magimel), a social worker assigned to Malony who has had a similarly troubled background. As the story unfolds, Malony is remanded back to the facility, manages to find part-time work he can’t hold, but ultimately both bad and good circumstances await (not necessarily in that order).

Much of the tension throughout the few years of Malony’s horn-lock with the system that the film follows hangs on whether the authorities—the judge and social worker especially—can turn so incorrigible a young man into something worthy of society. And, as Standing Tall is Made in France, might love play a role? Viewers will follow this dark journey to find out.

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