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When she opened her box, Pandora released all the evils it contained out into the world, and only hope was left at the bottom. I was often reminded of the mythical box when watching Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall , with the difference that hope, too, seems to have fled from the film.

Standing tall follows ten years in the life of a boy named Malony. It begins with his first encounter with a judge when he is 6 and follows him for the next ten years, during which he goes from being a child marred by an extremely unstable family situation to a full-fledged juvenile offender. The meetings with the judge punctuate the film and lend it its structure, as it is through them that we get to find out what trouble Malony has gotten himself into. We almost never never see him at it, but rather learn about what he has done through the inevitable legal audience that follows.

Malony is fueled by an uncontrollable rage that is also his only form of self-expression. This destructive force is very tangible throughout the film, and as viewers we constantly fell like we’re on the brink of an explosion. Standing tall  is pervaded by a feeling of hopelessness and doom too, for every time we think he has hit rock bottom, something else happens that plunges him even further down. The boy seems to have given up on himself, aware that he exists on the margins of society and that such condition is hardly going to change.

Marginalisation, mixed with class and ethnicity-related issues, is a theme that recurs throughout the film: it pops up in the conversations between young
offenders, it is evident in the difference between Malony’s mother and the judge, it is even mentioned casually by Malony, fully aware of how the world perceives him. In this sense, it is interesting that Bercot chose to include a song also featured in La haine, establishing a connection between her protagonist and Kassovitz’s banlieue boys, driven by a similar rage and resentfulness towards a society that refuses to include them.

Malony can at least count on the help of the judge, undeterred in her efforts to rescue him, and that of Yann, a young offender-turned-social worker that sees something of his previous self in the boy. The dynamics between the three are intricate and fragile, sometimes revealing unknown sides to the story. Newcomer Rod Paradot, in the role of the protagonist, can fully hold his ground against Benoit Magimel (the social worker Yann) and the cinema legend that is Catherine Deneuve in the role of the persevering judge.

Perseverance, marginalisation and redemption are extremely well explored in Standing tall, and in a year marked by debates on the inclusiveness of our society, it is encouraging to see Cannes take notice of them by choosing this film to open the festival. While not entirely convincing, the deceptively open ending seems to believe in the potential of salvation and second chances, suggesting that, after all, there might still be some hope left at the bottom of Pandora’s box.


Article originally published in Nisimazine Cannes