Malony (Rod Paradot) is a violent and short-tempered 16-year-old at-risk youth who causes nothing but heartache for Florence Blaque (Catherine Deneuve) and other workers at a juvenile detention center, where he’s been a recurring presence since his mother, Séverine (Sara Forestier), tried to leave him at the facility a decade prior. Standing Tall’s opening scene briefly dramatizes the event, as an exasperated Séverine tells Florence that her son’s “twisted” before slamming his backpack on her desk and screaming that she wants to be rid of him. Meanwhile, the boy sits quietly nearby, innocuously playing with a few toys. Cut to a decade later, where Malony does doughnuts in a car and is subsequently arrested on charges of reckless endangerment and driving without a license, and the film has already short-circuited its most vital element: a mapping of Malony’s path toward criminal behavior.
Malony’s anger isn’t the complicated product of parental neglect or social breakdown, but a device for premising the film’s interest in valorizing social workers as unduly recognized heroes of the public sector. Instead of treating Malony as a means to speak to how larger problems with schooling, welfare, or child care in France lead to endangered and emotionally fragile youths, director Emmanuelle Bercot proffers him as a wrecking ball of volatility.
Whenever Malony is told he’s written a sentence incorrectly, he throws papers on the ground and flips his desk over. In the office of a school principal, he lashes out and punches her desk when told he’ll have to learn with 13-year-olds. And, late into the film, he kicks a desk into a pregnant woman’s stomach when he discovers that he’s facing possible jail time. His mother apologizes at one point for having created “a monster.” While the film is designed to push against her verdict of Malony’s worth and view him as a human being who deserves as many chances as possible to find his own humanity, its treatment of his emotions presents merely abject, psychotic forms of behavior.
Malony’s anger finds its most appalling outlet in Tess (Diane Rouxel), the teenaged daughter of a counselor who seems drawn to him for sketchy reasons. That is, Malony’s such a terror, and so resolutely deranged in his ability to empathize with others, that Bercot unwittingly positions Tess, an otherwise intelligent and sensitive young woman, as someone allured by psychosis and the threat of violence. These possibilities are actualized in a scene where consensual sex between the two quickly turns into rape. Bercot displays little awareness of how troubling the dynamic is here, especially since Malony’s act not only goes unmentioned, but is seemingly forgiven by Tess, who winds up having sex with Malony several more times. Without pairing these narrative developments with a conscious statement on the ways gender dynamics can complicate sexual desire, Standing Tall quickly devolves into a contemptible, exploitative presentation of sociological matters.