La tête haute (Standing Tall)
Directed by Emmanuelle Bercot
Written by Emmanuelle Bercot, Marcia Romano
Perhaps it’s an unfortunate coincidence for the festival opener, French social drama La Tête Haute, that it follows but a year after the adulation apparently garnered by Xavier Dolan’s Mommy at last year’s festival – while the flamboyant Quebec drama received 10 minutes’ standing ovation, this year’s press screening of the more down-to-earth underprivileged mother-son duo from Dunkerque was met by a total of two claps and a single boo…
The film stars newcomer Rod Paradot as Malony, a delinquent ‘white-trash’ teenager, Sara Forestier as his rotten-tooth semi-junkie mother, Catherine Deneuve as an infinitely patient, rational but clement children’s judge, and Benoît Magimel as a badly-aging social worker. We first meet Malony as a six-year old in the judge’s office, where his own mother declares him a monster and abandons him to the court’s custody, and follow his never-ending roller-coaster of bad boy-redemption bound-future thug- redemption through fatherhood evolution. The downside is that at some point we, unlike the benevolent state of France, stop caring about the cliché that is the “I-am-a-loser-blame-the-world” ethos sported by the majority of the young delinquents inhabiting Malony’s universe. Fortunately for Malony, though, the state welfare system never stops caring and goes from spending a daily 280 euros to 800 euros towards the end of Malony’s petty crime career for his rehabilitation in a youth detention centre. This is the monetary cost of redemption of what the filmmaker tries to persuade us are not just thugs in the making, but sensitive and hurt young males whose only means of expression is boorish violence at one another and at any and all authority figure.
An unfortunate coincidence for Bercot’s film, because where Dolan’s made-in-Longueuil tale of excess teenage testosterone (read, mindless aggression and theatrical angst) and hapless mothering was carried by flashes of stylistic bravado and self-deprecating humour, La tête haute follows in the unimaginative tradition of French social realist didacticism (to which one can add the Belgian so-called ‘grit’ of the vastly overrated Dardennes brothers), which instead of imparting compassion and social consciousness, ends up boring the audience towards halftime, caught in its own “will-he, won’t he find the right way” dilemma.
The touch of originality to La tête haute is perhaps its rose-tinted view of the benevolent French welfare state – where French cinema usually treats us to an image of state officials as bureaucratic near-heartless fonctionnaires, Bercot paints a picture of a sensitive, sensible child protection system in the shape of Deneuve’s Mother Theresa-like judge, Magimel’s tough but fair educator and the myriad of well-intentioned youth centre councillors, staff, lawyers, that step in the shoes of the absurdly incompetent mother, grotesquely portrayed by Sara Forestier, one of French cinema’s less screen-friendly presences. Unfortunately for the film, neither Forestier nor Paradot manage to come close to the endearing eccentricity and wacky charisma of Anne Dorval and Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Mommy. And while Deneuve’s and Magimel’s performances are both good and full of good will, proudly wearing their battered but unshakeable optimism and belief in the redemptive role of state institutions, it remains to be seen whether the French public’s reaction will be one of a backlash against the culture of the ‘blame the universe and thrash some furniture’ mindset of the welfare dependency it portrays.