Last year, the Cannes Film Festival got off to the worst possible start. The opening night slot has always had ups and downs (read our feature on the best and worst of them here), and for every “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Up,” there was a “Da Vinci Code” or “Blindness,” but “Grace Of Monaco” was something else: a rotten, ill-conceived biopic of Grace Kelly that hasn’t just skipped U.S theaters entirely, it’s actually premiering on Lifetime.
Festival head Thierry Fremaux clearly had some making up to do with this year’s opening night film, and he’s eschewed big Hollywood stars for a more modest, homegrown effort in Emmanuelle Bercot‘s “Standing Tall,” which also marks the first time since Diane Kurys‘ “A Man In Love” in 1987 that a film from a female director has kicked off Cannes. The result is a sturdy, grounded drama that’s certainly far superior to last year’s trainwreck, but isn’t quite as satisfying to rank with the very best openers.
The latest feature from the actress-turned-filmmaker follows the story of Malony (Rod Paradot). When we meet him he’s just six years old, but he’s already in trouble at school, and has worn out the limited patience of his drug-addicted mother (Sara Forestier), who dumps him in the care of the authorities, in the shape of a mostly sympathetic judge (Catherine Deneuve).
Nearly a decade later, and Malory’s just as much of a tearaway, stealing cars and purses, his emotional difficulties causing bursts of rage and violence. The Judge remains a part of his life, thanks to his various offences, and genuinely wants to help, along with his new counselor/social worker (Benoît Magimel). But his self-destructive nature makes him a tough nut to crack, even with a promising new romance with the daughter (Diane Rouxel) of one of his teachers.
Immediately evocative of the work of the Dardenne Brothers, but also recent films like “Starred Up,” “Short Term 12” and even “Boyhood,” Bercot’s setting out to make both a character study of a troubled young man wasting his potential, and an examination of a system trying desperately to do right by its charges, despite the immense difficulties and occasional bureaucratic red tape that tie their hands.
It’s more successful at the latter than at the former. The director has a real eye for the detail of social services (a corridor full of children like Malony, and a scene where Deneuve reaches her breaking point and, burying her emotion, sends the boy to prison, are among the most memorable moments), and fills her film with the decent, but flawed, men and women who make up the system that her protagonist passes through, with Magimel particularly strong as the social worker who comes from a background not dissimilar to Malony.
For the most part, it’s a compassionate and tender depiction of that world without descending into sentimentality, and yet it’s hard to discern exactly what she’s trying to say about it, other than “it exists.” And it’s even harder to see what her aim is with her portrait of Malony. Young lead Paradot is mostly very good, with a simmering charisma reminiscent of a Gallic Jack O’Connell. But the deliberately repetitive structure — he seems to be improving, he explosively self-destructs, he sinks further into the system, rinse, repeat — does no favors to getting under Malony’s skin.
Furthermore, Bercot ultimately seems to be more interested in easy answers than tough questions. Despite good work from Forestier, Malony’s young mother comes across more as a Dickensian caricature than a real human being, becoming increasingly awful as a person with each scene, and it’s clear who the director blames for her protagonist’s troubles. Frankly, it’s disappointing that a female director would demonize a woman in the way she does with Forestier’s character, or underwrite one as much as she does with Rouxel’s role as a love interest (her romance with Malony is positively anaemic).
Least satisfyingly of all is the ending. Had Bercot been able to stick the landing, this likely would have been bumped up a grade, but instead, we get a scene where Malony’s given a lotion that he’s told will improve his self-esteem, and just like that, he seems to be a changed man. The film spends a great effort in explaining to Malony that he needs to understand the consequences of his actions, but then ignores some of his most recent ones (including an assault on a pregnant woman) for a pat resolution.
It’s a shame, because for all the problems, there’s a lot of value to be found here, from the very fine performances to the generosity that it extends to most of its characters (though like many actors-turned-directors, Bercot is more interested in the actors than in her camera, shooting the vast majority of the film in flat mid-shots). As it is, it proves to be not so much standing tall as stooping lightly. [C]