Unquestionably well-meaning, the French drama Standing Tall tackles a topic that’s not often enough portrayed on screen: the challenges facing at-risk youth. But good intentions take director Emmanuelle Bercot’s movie only so far, as one is left with the impression that the sincerity of the endeavor has outpaced its execution. Here’s a movie that’s so nobly conceived that you may feel guilty that you don’t like it more.
When we first meet Malony, he’s six and already seemingly on the road to a troubled life. Standing Tall opens with his mother (Sara Forestier) and a judge (Catherine Deneuve) arguing about his future—he’s established a troubling pattern of bad behavior, even at a young age. (Even worse, his very young mom doesn’t seem that invested in taking care of the boy, abandoning him with the judge during a spasm of extreme frustration.) Twelve years later, Malony (now played by Rod Paradot) is only getting worse, stealing cars and disrespecting authority. With school a waste of time, he’s sent to a center for juvenile delinquents, where he meets a tough-love counselor (Benoît Magimel) and a young woman, Tess (Diane Rouxel), who’s drawn to him.
As an unintended response to Boyhood, Standing Tall demonstrates what can happen to an impressionable kid when he doesn’t have a healthy family life to help shape him. But there’s also something intriguingly mysterious about Malony’s antisocial attitudes: Bercot (On My Way) doesn’t spend a lot of time analyzing the young man’s inner life. As portrayed by Paradot, Malony is a blank mask of constant petulance, ready to explode into violent outbursts at a moment’s notice, which he will repeatedly. Standing Tall isn’t about diagnosing Malony but, rather, studying what can be done to help a wayward teen like him.
It’s in this regard where the earnestness of the drama repeatedly undercuts the storytelling. Despite the stripped-down filmmaking style, there’s a conventionality to Malony’s journey: He will predictably take two steps back for every one step forward. This narrative tendency is especially tiresome when he gets involved in a needlessly contrived car accident that’s meant to be a crucial plot point; it feels orchestrated by the filmmakers to ensure that Malony is constantly facing a life of hard knocks.
But other aspects of Malony’s personal development are chronicled with the same lack of nuance. Though played with a superb balance of toughness and vulnerability by Rouxel, Tess never stops feeling like a dramatic device through which we’re meant to measure Malony’s progress. The two leads have an appreciably tense rapport—both of these characters are scared of being hurt—but it’s a shame that Tess isn’t allowed to evolve into her own fully-dimensional character. (She, too, is burdened by an irritating plot twist near the end of Standing Tall, which further strips her of personality.)
However, these significant flaws shouldn’t take away from some finely honed performances from Bercot’s supporting players. Magimel is just right as a counselor who knows about the challenges Malony’s facing—he, too, had a difficult upbringing—but doesn’t let his sympathies get in the way of the job he needs to do steering this kid toward a better life. And Forestier nicely captures the mother’s own path to redemption: Like Malony, she’s a screwup who’s constantly being tested about what kind of person she wants to become. The actress invests fully in the character’s demons and immaturity, guiding her toward a resolution that’s modestly poignant.
Ultimately, though, Standing Tall has a distracting void at its center. The longer we spend time with Malony, the more he seems like a lost cause, but not in a mournful or provocative way. Instead, he just seems underdeveloped, as if the filmmakers were more interested in depicting how a system works to help such a person, as opposed to being curious about the person himself. The missed opportunities of this film extend to its ending, which feels hopeful while retaining more than a small measure of quiet anxiety. A better movie would hold that tension between those two sentiments, leaving us uncertain. Standing Tall merely reminds us how little we’ve penetrated the soul of an individual Bercot ostensibly wants to try to save.
Director: Emmanuelle Bercot
Writers: Emmanuelle Bercot, Marcia Romano
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Rod Paradot, Benoît Magimel, Sara Forestier
Release Date: Screening out of competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.