I recently watched La Tête Haute (lah tet ote), on Netflix, starring Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve plays the role of a judge who becomes involved in the life of a young boy whose mother is incapable of properly caring for him. Malony (Rod Paradot) bounces in and out of the judge’s chambers through his late teen years, getting into increasingly serious trouble, despite the genuine care shown by both the judge and his social worker, played by Benoît Magimel. The film does have an optimistic ending, which actually troubled me. It almost felt as though they were suggesting that teenage fatherhood was going to turn this young man around, instead of perpetuate the cycle.
This film brought so many pieces of my life to mind. I used to work for a judge who heard cases of abuse and neglect of children. I also served on a juvenile justice committee and was briefly a foster parent to a troubled teenager. Certainly, the sense of people being locked in a cycle of violence and neglect was present. My judge had been seeing some of the people who appeared before her for years before my clerkship and no doubt still saw them long after I had moved into private practice. It was interesting to see the informal way cases involving children were presented in chambers in France rather than with robes and a high bench. Some parts of the film were highly realistic portrayals of juvenile justice cases but others not so much. For instance, social workers who assault their clients don’t just get a reprachful look from the judge!
The movie did well at the César awards in 2016, winning two of the top prizes for the male leads and being nominated for an additional six categories. In English, the title is given as “Standing Tall,” but a more literal translation would be something like “Head Held High.” I didn’t love the film, but it sure made me appreciate my own parents and reminded me of why I left law!