With the first female-directed film to open the Cannes film festival since A Man in Love by Diane Kurys 28 years ago, there’s a lot riding on Emmanuelle Bercot’s La Tête haute. And she doesn’t disappoint. The gruelling story of Malony, an adolescent shunted around by the French administration in an effort to turn him into a functioning member of society is both harrowing and deeply moving. Young newcomer Rod Paradot, who was apparently discovered by the casting director outside a techinical college in Paris, is highly convincing as the angry, sullen, violent teenager who changes in a heartbeat into a scared, sobbing child calling for his mother. Bercot last worked with Catherine Deneuve in 2013’s On My Wayand she casts her here against type as a schoolmarmish children’s judge who refuses to give up on the young man, despite his talent for self-destruction. She is more than ably supported by Benoît Magimel as the social worker with a past, and Sara Forestier as Séverine, Malony’s irresponsable, single mother. It is over long and too many scenes shuffle back and forth between the judge’s chambers and identical looking reform schools. And more time could have been spent on the relationship between Malony and his girlfriend Tess (Diane Rouxel) which seems under-developed and rushed. But as a social drama, it sheds a rare positive light on a society which genuinely believes there is a role for the state in a child’s upbringing.
We first meet Malony at age six, in the judge’s chamber as he watches his mother abandon him to the state. Nine years later and Malony is once again before the judge for carjacking, truancy and list of other misdemeanours. He is rude and agressive, but the judge decides not to send him to prison and instead he is packed off to reform school thus establishing a pattern of events which will repeat themselves over next two years. Only the judge’s constant exhortation to make the most of the chances offered to him and the doggedness of his social worker Yann (Magimel) stop him from going completely off the tracks. Yet it is the relationship with Tess, the daughter of a reform school teacher, that gradually starts to turn things around for the troubled teen-ager.
Bercot neatly avoids the pitfalls of other coming-of-age films. There is no ‘lightbulb’ moment when the adolescent realises the error of their ways and changes direction. Instead Bercot shows the tireless, exhausting dedication the social service and the legal professions give to their jobs. The jury is still out on whether the French system of providing juvenile delinquants with a structure and discipline is a formula for success. Certainly Bercot’s film doesn’t draw any neat conclusions. If anything, the film shows a failure to dig deep enough into the reasons behind Malory’s anti-social behaviour – it appears the system is so busy treating the ‘effect’, it ignores to a large extent the ’cause’. But carping aside, La Tête haute was a risky choice for the high-profile opening film, but a risk that has ultimately paid off.