It takes the entire juvenile justice system to raise a child in “Standing Tall,” French director Emmanuelle Bercot’s earnest homage to the unflagging dedication Gallic social workers put into ensuring that no child gets left behind. Less group-huggy than such inspirational pics as “Lean on Me” and “Stand and Deliver,” yet every bit as respectful of the pros who step in to educate and elevate disadvantaged youth, this atypically non-glam Cannes opener centers around young discovery Rod Paradot, a serious-looking woodworking student whom Bercot convinced to play her volatile teenage lead. Though solid, this low-key drama seems unlikely to cause much of a stir outside of France as it tracks 10 years in the life of a troubled child, beginning the moment his birth mother gives up and sticking close as a juvenile judge (Catherine Deneuve, whose matronly turn provides some export appeal) and her team refuse to throw in the towel.
So much depends on the look of utter helplessness and confusion on young Malony’s face, as seen in the opening scene: Described by his birth mother (Sara Forestier) as a “little monster,” Malony is clearly too innocent to understand what’s happening. Looking convincingly overwhelmed with her greasy hair and gnarly overbite, Forestier’s character abandons her son to the care of Florence Blaque (Deneuve), a sympathetic yet stern magistrate who will come to serve as a sort of foster mother over the coming decade — not in a traditional adoptive sense, but by virtue of her ongoing commitment to his case.
It’s not quite clear what becomes of Malony in the years immediately following this scene, as the film leaps forward to find the young man (now played by Paradot) joyriding without a driver’s license — a stunt that lands him back in Blaque’s offices, which will become the only stable and recurring location the kid can find over the course of an adolescence spent in and out of detention facilities, counseling centers and, at one point, even prison. Though not as rigorously conceived as 2014’s Cannes breakout “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (which depicted a drawn-out, five-year Israeli divorce proceeding entirely from the confines of a rabbinical court), “Standing Tall” feels similarly process-oriented, finding continuity in Malony’s visits before judge Blaque.
Films like this tend to fall in two camps, either centering directly on the child characters themselves (like last year’s “Boyhood,” which invited audiences to reflect on their own adolescence) or privileging the courageous adults who work to steer them back on course (a la “Short Term 12,” playing more to our nurturing instincts). “We lay down the tracks, but we can’t drive the train for them,” Blaque says at one point, and yet the film clearly views it as a public duty for society to step in where the parents fall short — a question of simple human rights, as viewed through the prism of a more socialism-inclined country like France, which expends as much as €800 per day to rehabilitate such kids, regardless of color. (Paradot may be white, but the supporting cast introduces a sense of real diversity.)
In addition to Blaque, this system supplies a small army of civil servants to guide Malony along the way, led by Yann (Benoit Magimel), a brooding, blue-eyed counselor who may have gone through similar trauma in his own youth. The least convincing member of a cast that rarely seems to be acting, Magimel comes on like a young Sean Penn, overplaying the character’s leather-jacket chic and faraway stare, but in time, even he starts to meld with his more naturalistic surroundings, earning his heroism not through a single dramatic act, but rather by refusing to back down even when Malony makes his life hell.
Bercot’s inspiration to make the film came from an uncle who worked coaching delinquent youth for years, and spent long hours observing juvenile coaches and judges alike before writing the script (on which Marcia Romano collaborated). The research shows in its dramatic detail and the dialogue itself, which is dense with technical terms and legal slang. Apart from a romantic subplot involving a girl named Tess (Diane Rouxel, first seen in Larry Clark’s “The Smell of Us”), nearly everything that happens could have been lifted from a real kid’s case file: the serial carjackings, the spontaneous outbursts, the little brother also remanded to a children’s home after his mom’s pot habit results in secondhand intoxication.
Taking a page from the Dardenne brothers’ brand of social realism without going so far as to attempt such documentary naturalism, the film unashamedly leans on music (the overused Arvo Part, for example, or a heavy-handed Bach cantata) to underscore emotions, while keeping things pseudo-realistic via discreet handheld lensing. Despite such crutches, Bercot studiously avoids the sort of catharsis-oriented pop psychology the genre so often peddles: She doesn’t pretend that there’s some secret trick that can “fix” kids like Malony, allowing the character to be volatile and inconsistent. One moment, we glimpse the promising soul hidden behind his furrowed brow and want to help, the next, he’s erupting into a feral rage, as the movie dares us not to declare him a lost cause.
While the film remains cautiously undecided about how Malony’s life will turn out in the end, the final scene between Paradot and Deneuve reveals a young man radically transformed by the years of support counselors have spent on his case. Compare the body language and posture the young thesp demonstrates during his first appearance — nervously slouching against the wall, hands shoved in his pockets, baseball cap pulled low, refusing to make eye contact — with the way he presents himself to her on the eve of her retirement.