You know the formula — troubled teen meets inspirational mentor, and it hardly matters whether we're talking a delinquent battling a judge, or a chess champion pitted against a street gang.
But suppose the mentor is more troubled than the teen. That's the story in The Dark Horse, a based-on-truth tale about a middle-aged Maori speed-chess champion who is released from a New Zealand mental institution, alas, into the home of his biker-gang brother. From frying pan to fire, with medication issues.
Genesis (aka Gen) Potini is recovering from a nervous breakdown when we first spot him wandering into an antiques store in the rain. Bipolar, disoriented, wrapped in a colorful quilt, he can't really care for himself. But he's a bad fit for his brother's home as well, so his brother gives him cash for other housing. Gen instead camps out in a cemetery and uses the money to buy chess sets for a club for disadvantaged Maori teens. He vows to coach them so they can enter a championship in six weeks. And therein hangs the tale, right?
Except, well ... no. One teen who is not a member of the club is Gen's nephew, Mana (James Rolleston), who's on the verge of being forced into his father's biker gang, with his father's blessing. Family dynamics that are hard to read are soon battling gang dynamics that are hard to fathom in what's arguably one of the world's least likely milieus for a chess movie.
Gen, whose story was told 13 years ago in an award-winning documentary also called Dark Horse, is played here by Cliff Curtis, a Maori actor most famous at the moment as the lead in AMC's Fear The Walking Dead. A strapping, usually commanding performer, he is all but unrecognizable in The Dark Horse — gap-toothed, scattered, heavyset, heavy-lidded from his meds, barely able to keep things together for the kids. Gen is a mess; his film definitely isn't.
Speaking of messes, Standing Tall is about a French lad who is about as messed up as it's possible to be, though when we first encounter him at age 6, his mother screaming in a court hearing that he's a monster, he looks downright angelic.
As Mom (Sara Forestier) storms out with her other child, hurling a bundle of clothing as she leaves, family court judge Catherine Deneuve realizes this outburst was planned. Mom had packed. The judge looks sadly at Malony, the quiet, seemingly innocent youngster she has left behind.
Cut to nine years later, a car careening down suburban streets barely missing pedestrians, with 15-year-old Malony at the wheel. He is now everything his mother claimed he was — uncontrollable, violent, a virtual sociopath. In juvenile detention, he's so abusive, he reduces toughened counselors to tears.
When Deneuve calls Malony into her office now, she first has her secretary remove scissors and a letter opener — precautions learned over years of dealing with this kid. Schools can't control him. Institutional care seems to make things worse. Deneuve tries to practice tough love, grasping at every straw — a connection with a girl, a possible job in a tattoo parlor — but with even the slightest setback, Malony erupts and rages.
"Do you really think," she asks him during one such outburst, "that this court doesn't care?"
"I don't trust you," he responds.
She reaches across the desk and, tentatively, he reaches back, but he's not ready yet.
"Take the hands that are given you," she tells him. "It's time."
Rock solid as Deneuve is, the whirlwind she is trying to tame — first-timer Rod Paradot — is the one who holds your attention. You keep watching his fuming, icy Malony for signs of a thaw — a slight unclenching of a fist, a smile that's not a smirk.
And all around him, director Emmanuelle Bercot lets you see the cracks in the network that should be propping him up: parents who aren't there, dedicated social workers who are themselves damaged, a system that can't bend when this kid, this judge, needs it to bend.
As in The Dark Horse, children at risk are just a starting point. Adults, these films say, are often at risk, too. Even when they're standing tall.