Time was when every other drama about troubled youth came packaged with evil, inept or uncomprehending government functionaries itching to make matters worse. In Emmanuelle Bercot's sympathetic Standing Tall, one sorely lacking caseworker shows up briefly to rub salt in the prior wounds of a damaged youngster. He is quickly dispatched though, and from then on the film tags along with a team of dedicated workers trying to rescue the teenager from a rotten past, a lousy future, and his own hair-trigger temper. There's not a saint among them, but their devotion rarely flags.
If that's a rosy view of how things go down in the halls of juvenile correction, it's one that shows a refreshing appreciation for the compassion and perseverance of those on the front lines of a system that often seems primed for failure. For anyone who loves films about who we are when we're working, Standing Tall is a fine procedural that's less concerned with the roots of delinquency or with institutional inertia than with the hair-raising ebb and flow of daily life in the juvie trenches.
No fingers are pointed here, and the movie brigns no fresh news about the forces that warped young Malony (played by Rod Paradot, an electric natural plucked from carpentry school) into the bundle of warring impulses he's become since we first met him as a cute, terrified six-year-old. Abandoned by an ill-equipped mother (a very good Sara Forestier) who loves him in her way but is barely more than a child herself, Malony now bounces between foster families and juvenile courts, running wild with only a compassionate judge (Catherine Deneuve) standing between him and adult prison.
As a blowsy late bloomer in Bercot's pleasantly knockabout 2013 road movie On My Way, Deneuve clearly relished the release from her reputation as an ice queen. Here she offers a precisely observed friction between serenely maternal, crafty and exasperated as the magistrate who, on the verge of retirement, knows how stacked the deck is against the likes of Malony, yet never quite succumbs to cynicism or despair. She's helped, mostly, by a caseworker (Benoit Magimel) who's up from the gutter himself and careens between tenacious support of his young charge and terror that he my never be fully out of the woods himself. Picking their way through a system that stands ready to put Malony away for good, they steer the boy to a residential home in a bucolic country setting, where we see him struggle with other kids as volatile and as vulnerable as he is.
The pleasure of Standing Tall lies in its intelligent fidelity to process, to the Sisyphean struggle that both Malony and his stubborn but tested protectors face. We see the minuscule steps forward and the helpless backsliding that hold this frequently unlikable youngster captive to a reactivity that threatens his frail yet potent attachment to his mother, to the troubled yet loving girl (Diane Rouxel) who offers him love and hope, to the judge who refuses to give up on him. Deftly shuffling points of view with a soundtrack that veers between classical pieces and rap, Bercot moves the action along with unsteady, staccato rhythms that juggle Malony's simmering rage with his yearning for an ordinary life.
By the end of this kindly film we want to give it to him, and though it's easy enough to write off the climax as frankly wishful, Bercot has cunningly stashed a nascent gift in the prologue to Standing Tall. This tortured young man has an innate talent that will help him earn the future she has bestowed on him, and send his helper into retirement resting easy.