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Review:  ‘Standing Tall’ really does in its take on France’s juvenile justice system

It’s rare for moviegoers to see public institutions depicted in a heroic light, which makes “Standing Tall” something of an unfashionable eye-opener. The French drama’s juvenile justice system is neither inept nor corrupt. Devoted personnel face seemingly incorrigible kids and insurmountable odds as best they can, with clear-eyed compassion.

If director Emmanuelle Bercot’s feature isn’t always dramatically satisfying, it is fueled by the fine, flinty chemistry of Catherine Deneuve, Benoît Magimel and newcomer Rod Paradot. They play, respectively, a juvenile magistrate, a caseworker and a troubled teen — a family of sorts, as the unsentimental screenplay by Bercot and Marcia Romano (“Under the Sand”) suggests.

Malony needs all the structure and support he can get. When he’s only 6, his overwhelmed wreck of a mother (Sara Forestier) rejects him as a “monster.” Ten years later, he’s a car thief with a long list of violations and a short fuse. Deneuve’s judge matter-of-factly removes potential weapons from her office — scissors, a heavy glass vase — before he enters for a hearing.

The intimate scale of these official dealings is striking. As a figure of sensitive authority, working to right the boy through turbulent years, Deneuve anchors the narrative with magnificent restraint. And the terrific Magimel, embodying a vulnerable version of tough love as the counselor Yann, delivers the film’s most affecting moment. It arrives in an especially unguarded exchange with Malony, who’s astute enough to recognize their similarities — which the screenplay indicates without indulging in maudlin back story.

With his coiled, jumpy intensity, Paradot — a carpentry student making his acting debut — is thoroughly convincing, provoking scorn as much as sympathy. Malony’s explosive fits grow tiresome for the audience, as they do for the other characters. Wearing down our patience might be one of the ways Bercot is challenging expectations. Yet the repetitiousness drains the movie of momentum. Attempts to pump up the drama with intrusive music don’t help.

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Missteps aside, Bercot perceptively illuminates the hard work and heart beneath the bureaucratic alphabet soup, much as she did as co-writer of “Polisse.” For the indefatigable souls guiding Malony, giving up is not an option.

calendar@latimes.com


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