How to save a damaged youth

THE SYSTEM AT WORK. Catherine Deneuve in 'Standing Tall'

Well, just what is this unusual film about? That it defies genre categorization is not a fault, merely a characteristic which, in the long run, triggers conversation—which is probably what director-author Emmanuelle Bercot would most appreciate.

One, it is the story of a fatherless, emotionally starved young troublemaker, Malony (Rod Paradot), abandoned to the French juvenile rehabilitation system, who struggles with the demons that drive him nuts. Next, it is the story of the rehab system itself —personified in the judge (Catherine Deneuve) and the counselor Yann (Benoit Magimel)—which patiently and skillfully over 10 years nurtures this adolescent wildman.


In a series of interviews the director and leading players talk more about the structure of France’s devotion to troubled youths than about the complex character of the 16-17 year-old boy who dynamically, for better or worse, drives the action of this cinematic character study.

Much of the boy’s behavior is despicable. But we like him. The director picked the actor out of a trade school. Though he had never made a film and had no lofty ambitions to be a star, he had been in school plays and experienced some of the trials his character Malony had suffered. He has an innocent Botticelli face and a slender build appropriate for a vulnerable, mixed-up adolescent anti-hero.

We first meet him as a six-year-old when his incompetent and exasperated mother brings him to the judge’s office to hand him over to the care of the state. We next see him ten years later, his face shielded by a hoodie, hands in his pockets, sulking against the wall, pretending to be oblivious to what is happening to him. He has stolen a car and taken a joy ride, damaged property and risked the lives of his riders. Suddenly he explodes, screams vulgarities, assaults the assembled counselors and is handcuffed. The judge reasonably first decides he should go to a regular prison, but she is talked down by fellow advisers to sentence him to a youth rehab camp.

There, an instrument to his cure, if the rambunctious Malony is open to a cure, is Yann, a rugged counselor whose own life includes mistakes and reform. And also Tess, the young daughter of a staff member, with short hair and a delicate face like Malony’s. Their relationship provides the turning point of the film.

They become close, and, in a disturbing scene, he leads her to a private place, where he assaults her in what could be considered a rape, yet which she ultimately embraces with tears of love. The next morning the camera presents a beautiful sunrise, and we see Malony smile for the first time. They continue the relationship; she becomes pregnant and he insists on an abortion. But on the day of the scheduled operation he jumps up, dashes to the hospital, crashes into the operating room and snatches her from the table, saving the life of their unborn son.

This is a turning point, evidence that the French system of juvenile rehabilitation works. But is it the system or his love for this young girl that is redeeming him?

The scenes where we see the system at work take place in the judge’s chambers, a small office where actress Deneuve’s character, now past middle age and considering retirement, personifies, in the presence of attorneys and counselors and Maloney’s perpetually disturbed mother and little brother, not just the judicial system, but France itself. And it poses a challenge to other countries, including the United States, which do not have juvenile crime under control.

I will not describe the final scene; but a key—and most beautiful—moment occurs toward the end when Malony and his counselor, Yann, whom he has frustrated, challenged and disappointed for 10 years, are having lunch. Suddenly Malony says, in the most undramatic and unromantic tone, as if he was asking him to pass the salt, “I love you.” As well he should, though Yann never saw it coming. Which is what this film is all about. 


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