Review: La Tête Haute a.k.a. Standing Tall is an overlong and sometimes frustrating journey of juvenile delinquency care in French reflected in lives of l’enfant terrible and people around him. It’s a long and winding road of candid law system – process to process until it finally settles in an ambiguous but reflective final scene. It’s a poignant drama which received 8 nominations at the 41st César Awards and won two.
‘Blatant’ and ‘unsettling’ might be the best vocabulary to fast-describe Standing Tall, aside from ‘hot-headed’. Standing Tall blatantly introduces the core character in a very distressing scene, where frustrated Séverine (Sara Forestier) irresponsibly leaves her confused, eldest toddler son, Malony (later portrayed by Rod Paradot), to the care of judge Florence Blaque (Catherine Deneuve). That irresponsibility is the epicenter of cause-and-effect drama as a recurring theme.
A juvenile Malony is the axis. The movie never signifies what have happened to Malony after his mother left; what we know afterwards is he recklessly drives a stolen car without license, along with her mother and younger brother inside. That crime is the beginning of the long legal process that follows, which reunites Malony with Florence and introduces him to a Sean Penn-esque mentor, Yann (Benoît Magimel, the boy from Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher), and a love-interest, Tess (Diane Rouxel). What follows is burning very slowly as it flows with no real climax.
Emmanuelle Bercot lets unstable Malony wanders off from juvenile delinquents facility to detention, to courtroom, to real-life work, to prison like an endless chain. There’s a lot of tugging moments going on and off might make it poignant. In one moment, we feel a spark of hopes embarking from within aggressive Malony, but on the following moment, he ruins it with his recurrent primal attitude. At some points, Malony could be handled down; he could say wise thing as ‘child is not a toy’ – a reflection to his mother’s ill-prepared nature to become a mother; or he could do something that really matters; but he flats them out on the ground with reckless behavior he’s showing in aftermath. It happens like a never-ending cycle that finally “ends” with the ambiguous (full of hope) ending.
While relying much on Malony’s unstable personality – which Paradot is portraying with deliberate emotional rides; Standing Tall is only as strong as the adult actors that give life into ‘that cycle’. Deneuve superbly portrays a motherly earthy figure; she might have the authority, but she has the hearts; and she cannot be anyone else. In Deneuve’s side, Magimel – who won Best Supporting Actor for this – emanates a reflection of a wiser, older Malony. While, Forestier gives balance as a reckless figure reflected in Malony.
The subject matter and the research underneath are, undeniably, superb hence the strong socio-cultural and legal subtexts. In addition, strong performances delivered by the actors are as strong. However, Bercot’s approach in telling this poignant story is a frustrating one; the duration is overlong and the pace runs like a snail.