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Cannes Review: The First Great Discovery of 2015 is Rod Paradot in Emmanuelle Bercot’s ‘Standing Tall’

Cannes Review: The First Great Discovery of 2015 is Rod Paradot in Emmanuelle Bercot's 'Standing Tall'

READ MORE: Cannes Opens with Emmanuelle Bercot’s ‘Standing Tall’: ‘I’m not a minority’

Emmanuelle Bercot is better known as an actress than a filmmaker, though
that’s bound to change with the French writer-director’s fourth feature
“Standing Tall” receiving global attention as the opening night
selection of the Cannes Film Festival. Nevertheless, Bercot’s solidly
engaging if fairly routine social-realist drama mainly stands out as an
actor’s showcase.

Shot with a handheld, naturalistic quality
familiar to anyone who has seen a Dardenne brothers movie, Bercot’s
stirring narrative focuses on feisty teen Malony (Rod Paradot), who
contends a neglectful single-parent household and attempts by a
committed judge (Catherine Deneuve) to straighten out his act. That
bumpy relationship forms the backbone of a story in which the system
designed to help kids like Malony collides with his evolving
individuality.

After a brief prologue in which the judge meets
Malony in his infancy while his trainwreck of a mother (Sara Forestier)
begs to maintain custody of the child, “Standing Tall” flashes forward
to reveal the result of her parenting: Fifteen-year-old Malony has
developed a penchant for stealing cars and speeding around town, then
scowling and throwing tantrums in the face of the judge and her
colleagues when they attempt to set him straight. Within minutes,
Paradot’s performance erupts into a full-fledged portrait of an
irascible problem child who snaps and growls at seemingly anyone in his
vicinity.

Malony’s first shot at salvation arrives with his
integration into a work program overseen by the well-intentioned Yann
(Benoit Magimel), where Malony encounters other rage-filled youth but
generally remains a shadow figure. Instead, his maturation progresses
with the inadvertent advances of local girl Tess (Diane Rouxel), the
soft-spoken daughter of another counselor, who’s drawn to Malony’s
outcast nature. While their connection leads to an inevitably saccharine
outcome, and her personality lacks the dimensionality allotted to the
movie’s lead, their developing romance forms the movie’s strongest plot
device. The courtship unfolds with a series of awkward encounters —
rough sex, terse phone calls, and the first signs that Malony has a
hidden affectionate side beneath his moody exterior.

Still, it’s
the young male actor’s ability to convey his extreme attitude that keeps
“Standing Tall” engaging from start to finish. While various adults
squabble over the best way to handle his situation, he’s often his own
worst enemy, at one point blowing an opportunity to get into school by
tearing apart a principal’s office during their interrogation session.
Throwing fits at every hint of authority in his presence, Malony’s
timebomb quality endows the proceedings with a recurring suspense
emboldened in Paradot’s outstanding performance.

Quivering with
rage, the petite young actor recalls Jack O’Connell’s similarly
unnerving turn as a furious prisoner in last year’s “Starred Up,” a
movie to which “Standing Tall” could serve as a prequel: While that
drama focused on the bureaucratic processes surrounding dangerous men,
“Standing Tall” illustrates the preventive measures designed to keep
them from getting that far — and concludes that only the youth in
question can truly control his fate.

For that reason, the
typically confident Deneuve is an efficient foil to Malony’s ongoing
rejection of any attempt to contain his outbursts, as she delivers a
series of practical monologues about how his behavior limits her options
while keeping his best interests at heart. Forestier, as Malony’s
teary-eyed, mostly ambivalent mother, provides Malony his best
motivation to take control of his surroundings, though his understanding
of the best way to do that leads to mixed results. In one heartbreaking
digression, his valiant attempt to help his mother leads to yet another
disastrous event that endangers his future.

Ultimately,
Paradot’s strongest onscreen chemistry develops opposite Magimel as the
supportive but equally beligerent counselor Yann, a troubled man clearly
recovering from the same kind of problems ailing Malony. Only Yann
seems to comprehend Malony’s situation while others are continually
baffled by it. “I created a monster,” his mother cries, illustrating the
chief disconnect as Malony drifts in and out of various programs,
shifting from anger, confusion and despair. Appropriately lacking in
eloquence about his situation, Malony conveys his troubles best in a
nightclubt scene where he flails his arms wildly as neon lights smother
him from every direction. Bercot wisely lets the actor’s combustible
energy fuel the story.

As a woman director premiering her movie
at a festival that frequently has struggled to find room for more like
her, Bercot shows enough capability behind the camera to work against
Cannes’ usual shortcoming. Still, it’s hard to imagine the prestigious
opening night slot going to countless other movies on a similar topic
and sporting a similar brand of gritty realism.

However,
“Standing Tall” also fits its slot for offering a keen look at the
protocol for developing French society. More than a coming of age story,
Bercot has applied a personal spin to the process of exploring
institutional support. Early on, Malony is reminded that the resources
necessary to keep him in his programs “cost society 230 euros a day.”

Overall,
the movie argues that the money has been well-spent. No matter how much
Malony stumbles, the system doesn’t fail him — although one
provocative conversation with a fellow incarcerated youth suggests a
racial imbalance that allows Malony to get off easy because he’s white.
Malony may get help, but “Standing Tall” doesn’t sugarcoat the
limitations of that process. His relationship with Tess winds up being
as crucial to his development as anything else. But even, then, it’s
unclear whether his progress has stymied his rebellious tendencies or
temporarily pushed them to the wayside.

Though Bercot’s
filmmaking doesn’t rely too heavily on symbolism, she tellingly lingers on
a shot of the courthouse at the movie’s close, a decision that could be
read as either purely triumphant or cynical. Malony’s ever-shifting
attitude, elevated to great heights by Pradot’s performance, regularly
complicates the matter. No matter where Malony winds up, he leaves us
uncertain about his next step.

Grade: B

“Standing Tall” opens the Cannes Film Festival this week. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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