Cannes: Standing Tall (La Tête Haute) review

Opening with a tense and occasionally even upsetting sequence in a Judge’s office, director Emmanuelle Bercot wastes no time in throwing her audience straight into the grim reality of her subject matter in Standing Tall. Yet there’s nothing rushed about this early scene and Bercot uses it to set up the narrative with a great deal of efficiency.

The main protagonist – although he is also too often his own antagonist – is Malony (Rod Paradot), who we first see here as a young child, played in this brief opening sequence by Enzo Trouillet. The Judge, who is deciding the fate of Malony is Florence (Catherine Deneuve), but cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman’s camera never allows us to see the faces of her or any of the other adults in the room.

The lens remains at Malony’s eye level as he scans the room, clearly not understanding quite what is happening but picking up on the intense emotions of his mother as she argues first to keep Malony, and then declaring that she wants to turn him over to the state.

And so Malony’s struggle in life and battle with the courts begins. Whether he was already the ‘handful’ that his mother makes him out to be is never clear, but he quickly becomes one, stealing cars and flying off in uncontrollably violent outbursts at even the smallest provocation.

Paradot is entirely convincing as the troubled youth, playing Malony from the age of sixteen onwards with a confident, physical performance that always communicates his emotional state even if we might not fully be able to understand or relate to it. He has superb support from the fine performances of Deneuve, in an understated but quietly affecting role, and Benoit Magimel, who plays Malony’s counsellor, Yann.

Bercot, who wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano, has drawn complex characters for these supporting roles, and allows us to piece them together ourselves. Yann, for instance, has a past similar to Malony’s, but this is revealed through an innocuous, almost throwaway line about him having built a wall at the reform school Malony is sent to.

Bercot is not always quite so restrained, however, and there are a number of times in which the film teeters on the brink of excessive melodrama, and even succumbs to it on one or two occasions. These brief moments of excess – often accompanied by unnecessary and distracting needle drops on the soundtrack – ultimately only dent the surface of what is otherwise an emotionally compelling humanist drama.

Bercot also loses her footing with a scene of sexual assault occurs, perhaps going too far in trying to get under the skin of a problematic character at the expense of the believability and complexity of another, supporting figure. The film never satisfyingly addresses some of the ideas raised by this scene, and buries the troubling implications of the entire sequence in favour of a tidy ending.

At it’s best, Standing Tall brings to mind the masterful work of the Dardennes but Bercot’s film is nowhere near as assured or nuanced as, say, their loosely comparable The Kid with a Bike. Nonetheless, this is an often moving and always socially-minded feature, with strong central performances from Paradot, Deneuve and Magimel.