The opening film at Cannes treads an awkward line between social realism and sentimentality

The first time we meet Malony, the central character of Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall, he’s barely standing short. The boy is six years old and cowering in the corner of an office at a courthouse in present-day France. The local children’s magistrate (Catherine Deneuve) is talking tersely to his mother (Sara Forestier), who’s shouting back while trying to pacify the howling baby on her knee by cramming the end of a mobile phone into his mouth. 

Like the human characters in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, the adults’ heads remain out of frame: grown-up life is a tangle of anxiously bobbing legs and wringing hands, all of which is picked up on by the watchful Malony. His mother can’t cope with raising him, she says, so has decided to offload him on to the state. After this single-scene prologue, the film flashes forward seven years, but we soon realise that Malony, now 13, has never really moved on from this moment. He’s still a kid, still in the thrall of his own volcanic temper, still perplexed by the world, still being argued over by adults.

Standing Tall is a strange choice for an opening film at Cannes because it’s so determinedly unglamorous – though its status as the first from a female filmmaker since 1987, when Diane Kurys’s A Man in Love got the show on the road, makes it a historic one. The opening films of the last five years were Grace of Monaco, The Great Gatsby, Moonrise Kingdom, Midnight in Paris and Robin Hood: a mixed bag in terms of quality, but all blow-dried, sequin-stitched, red-carpet-ready cinema. 

Bercot’s film, on the other hand, is a low-key drama about a teenage boy’s struggle with the French justice system, starring an 18-year-old apprentice carpenter, Rod Paradot, who was spotted smoking outside a technical college in the Paris suburbs by the film’s casting director. It’s categorically not a headline-maker – Mad Max: Fury Road would have been the obvious choice – nor is it perhaps strong enough to justify its place on the platform.

Bercot’s film locates itself at an awkward mid-point between social realism and sentiment – it’s medicine and sugar mixed up in the same spoonful, and it doesn’t work nearly as well here as it did in Ken Loach’s similarly themed Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps the films it has most in common with are two recent French-language Cannes entries, Xavier Dolan’s frazzled Canadian melodrama Mommy and Maïwenn’s Paris-set cop drama Polisse (in which Bercot played one of the lead roles) – although it never quite captures the former film’s demented lust for life or the latter’s acute sense of its impossible messiness.

It does, however, boast a central performance that’s worth getting excited about. Paradot captures Malony’s coiled anger beautifully, from his early run-ins with Deneuve’s stoical magistrate to his various spells scratching at the walls of juvenile detention centres, his flirtations with one of his tutors’ tomboyish daughter Tess (Diane Rouxel), and his strained affections for his case-worker Yann (Benoît Magimel). He spits out his dialogue like sour milk, and clenches his face like a fist.

If Standing Tall is a coming-of-age film, then here the milestone is not something to be anticipated, but dreaded. While Malony remains a minor in legal terms, there’s still hope for him: the French state can try to steer him back on to the straight and narrow. But when he reaches 18, it’s time up. Deneuve, who last worked with Bercot on the comic drama On My Way (as yet unreleased in the UK), is more or less playing an idealised version of the French state: caring and steadfast, with the best interests of her charges at heart, but with a backbone of pure steel. In a neat touch, the walls of her office are decorated with her children’s (or perhaps grandchildren’s) paintings: a delicate way of telling us she has a sense of what normal family life should look like.

The tense polygon of relationships between Malony, his mother, Deneuve’s magistrate and Magimel’s case-worker ring true without ever detouring from the expected script. The far trickier course of his teenage romance with Tess, on the other hand, isn’t all that rigorously interrogated, and you can’t help but wish the film had spent a little less time on the various scenes of shouting in corridors and a little more getting under the skin of this half-destructive, half-nourishing relationship. The film has a scrappy optimism about it that’s often very winning, but it never draws itself up to its full height.