Film review: “Le Tête Haute” or “Standing Tall”

It opened the 2015 Film Festival in Cannes earlier this year. A film has to be special to do so. Does this French drama live up to expectations? Is this film really exceptional and a must-see?

English film reviewers have mixed feelings. Most agree that young actor Rod Paradot, who plays Malony, impresses and is a revelation. Others are less pleased with his performance: “…the aggressive teen repeatedly ends scenes by uncorking an actorly tirade, which often seems indistinguishable from the violent tirade he gave us in the previous scene. ..(Guardian review) But if Rod Paradot’s training and experience in acting is as limited as some report it is, his portrayal of Malory is even more impressive.

Film Standing tallOthers remark that Catherine Deneuve is too grand for the role of Florence, Malory’s juvenile judge. Of course, Catherine Deneuve never disappoints. But there is some truth in this remark. This fairly static role does not give her much scope to show what she is capable of.

Benoît Magimel plays Yann, one of a group of people trying to get some kind of grip on Malory. Where Rod Paradot plays a highly convincing derailed Malony, BenoÎt Magimel plays a totally convincing Yann. It is difficult not to feel great sympathy for this caring social worker who willingly goes just a few steps further than most, because he seems to have gone through similar experiences as many of his charges.

Throughout this film, there are many cameo roles as well. There are the young actors playing youths whom Malory meets on his down-ward spiral. There is the harsh, young prosecutor. There is the social worker who is unable to stand up to Malory. All of course help to illustrate Malory’s inability to break his slide towards hell. But is it Malory’s inability to grab what adults call “outstretched hands”, or the inability of these adults to ask the right questions and trigger Malory to talk and overcome mistrust?

Tess’ mother is another cameo role. Getting Malory to write a letter is more important, than ensuring her daughter catches a once an hour train to school. A typical case of the well-intentioned social worker or teacher, who manages to fail the home-front. Like Malory’s mum, Tess’ mum off-loads her child to the care of someone else – to get Tess to school. The difference between Malory’s teenage mum dumping him in Florence’s office and this older woman is not that great. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons, why Tess and Malory find each other.

Contrary to some film critics who moan about the raving and ranting of Malory, this behaviour is fairly realistically portrayed. Rod Paradot certainly does not only act out anger or hurries from one violent outburst to the next. He convincingly shows various emotions like deep frustration, pain, regret, pent-up tension, mistrust, fear and shame.

The behaviour of other youngsters, moaning about discrimination for instance, is also pretty realistic. As are the scenes where adults need to intervene when things turn nasty and violent – preferably without resorting to violence so as not to end up in the situation Yann finds himself in. Many an audience member may find such scenes rather too much.

For the majority in the audience have no idea how tough the work is. How difficult it is to remain motivated, when both the system and the lack of success are disheartening. How there will always be kids who somehow manage to be special, whether they make it or not.

In these scenes and portrayals, this film is highly realistic and true to life. Anyone who works or has worked with damaged kids or traumatized children, will recognise certain scenes and situations. And yet, the film somewhat disappoints.

Quite a few events totally fail to impress or surprise. An example is the car accident. From the start of the film, you know there will be a car accident. The only big surprise is, that once it happens – everybody survives.

Another example is Malory’s mum. From the moment she dumps him in Florence’s office, you know she will continue to show up to mess things up a bit more. Malory himself will of course slide from bad to worse to awful. Though for the sake of the happy end, he will steer clear of truly serious crimes like drugs dealing, armed robbery, murder.

For despite its occasional realism, this film aims at a happy end by quite a bit of sentimentality, tear-jerking, romanticism. Its message seems to be, that ultimately love solves all and everything. And of course, this is a fallacy.

This is Disney-fying reality. One in that many million kids like Malory may manage to prevent slipping all the way to hell, but the fact is, there are precious little of them in an overwhelming multitude who fail to turn around their lives. This is something the film never ever stresses.

So this film is not exactly a “must see”, but worth seeing for some excellent acting by Benoît Magimel and Rod Paradot. Or when one is in need of a dose of tear-jerking made good by a rosy happy end. Or when one wants to watch a not-that-taxing film, which runs a fairly predictable course without posing questions. So: while you’re watching, never ever forget, that society and the system and those who are part of these, manage to crush, let down, further damage, and fail far more children, than they save.

“Le Tête Haute”, director Emmanuelle Bercot, was released May 2015.
Main roles played by:
Catherine Deneuve;
Rod Paradot;
Benoît Magimel

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