Straying close to two hours, the viewer of Standing Tall will likely start to feel a sense of déjà vu kicking in by the end. It feels like being locked in the hallways, the offices and the cells of the juvenile justice system in which the main character finds himself. While there may be a sense of repetition as the story progresses, viewers can be sure that there is light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
There is little that is new in Standing Tall as it treads similar ground to French New Wave classic The 400 Blows or Ken Loach’s much more recent Sweet Sixteen, but with a trio of powerful performances, it manages to stand tall amongst these previous films that it shares DNA with. Standing Tall follows one youth as he rages his way through the juvenile justice system, and those that surround him try to help his recovery from a childhood forever tainted by neglect.
We meet Malony (Rod Paradot), age six and already in front of a judge. His mother (Sara Forestier) is at the end of her tether, unable to cope with her two children and ready to walk out on her eldest son, as her younger boy screams the office down. The Judge (Catherine Deneuve) puts Malory in to care but it is not enough to keep him on track and out of trouble. Cut to Malony age 16 and skidding around in stolen cars while ‘Sound of the Police’ blares out of the speakers.
Malony is damaged and disturbed and neither his relationship with the judge, nor his dedicated counsellor Yann (Benoit Magimel) can keep him from Juvenile Detention Facilities and possibly even prison. Over the next year, Malony attempts to reform as he progresses through the juvenile justice system, but the lure of his mother and his dangerous anger issues constantly push him away from those that seek to help him.
Malony could easily be portrayed as a monster but with a script that is accomplished at understanding his issues, and a sensational performance from newcomer Rod Paradot, sympathy is never far away. Malony may be scary at times and constantly make questionable decisions, but the film and the characters that populate it, never lose hope in him. The task that lies before the judges, counsellors and lawyers that surround Malony is tough, and Standing Tall never shies away from showing just how challenging it is. The efforts to save Malony from himself are enormous, and you might find yourself with an urge to give these caring folk a standing ovation as they negotiate with Malony’s volatile outbursts.
The characters portrayed within the context of this boy’s childhood are far from saints and Standing Tall both damns society for the hopelessness facing some children, and also shows the very human and fallible side of those who work in social services. The counsellor Yann is a man with his own history and when faced with Malony’s persistent rudeness, apathy and violence, he too has his own snapping point. Both he and the judge know that there is only so much that they can do to help Malony, but in a society so devastatingly lacking in opportunity, the teen is disadvantaged at every turn.
Writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot never loses sight of the little boy at the heart of the story. From the opening scene that pins the camera to his six year old face while a room full of adults argue around him, there is little that changes as the film goes on. Malony is always a lost little boy beneath the tough exterior and Paradot’s performance perfectly captures the juxtaposition of bravado and acute vulnerability within him. Even when he participates in a deeply troubling sex scene, your sympathy always re-emerges later, especially as he cries for his beloved mother.
And therein lies one of the most challenging ideas that the film grapples with. A boy without parents needs the surrogate parents provided by the state, but who has the right to take a boy from his mother? If there are any monsters here, Sara Forestier’s mother is a tragedy left relatively unexplored. She loves her son but her love is far from simple. She is drugged up, neglectful and completely incapable of coping with parenthood. In the judge and the counsellor, Malory finds new parents, but he is always torn between role models and the paths offered by his real family and his state sponsored support network.
Standing Tall emerges as a film about trial and error, about the process of maturing and above all, about hope. Malony must learn to control himself and learn that life is not going to be easy. Even when the film feels like a downward spiral into inevitable tragedy, there are occasional pin pricks of hope that shine through. Newcomer Paradot has the weight of the film on his shoulders and he carries it magnificently. When Malony loses faith in himself, the endless hope of those around him is essential. Emmanuelle Bercot keeps things gritty, investing the film with a sense of circularity and symmetry. Malony continually finds himself back in the same circumstances, making for an occasionally frustrating film as every step forward leads to two steps back.
However, this frustration and disappointment is the reality for the kind of characters who are depicted here, and as such, the film itself is a triumphant testament to the incredible people who work with troubled children.
About the Author
Peter Turner Senior Reporter & Critic for Tastic Film Magazine.