Catherine Deneuve, the grande dame of French cinema, is the calm centre of this low-key social realist drama about a teenage boy going wildly off the rails. A quiet but forceful presence, Deneuve plays a soon-to-retire judge on the juvenile circuit and an unlikely surrogate mother to Malony (Rod Paradot), a boy who appears in her office several times with escalating urgency over the course of a few years. Other members of Malony's unofficial extended family include his rough-necked counsellor Yann (Benoît Magimel), as well as a handful of carers who come and go in his life with the same volatility as his mood swings.
We first meet Malony aged six, when his poor and incapable mother (Sara Forestier, wearing distractingly bad fake teeth) abandons him to social care. We catch up with Malony nine years later as KRS-One's 'Sound of Da Police' (the film's music choices aren't subtle) booms on the soundtrack and Malony joyrides in a stolen car. Once arrested, he finds himself on a downward spiral of judgements and punishments, and it becomes questionable whether he'll be able to avoid the fate that life has mapped for him – or if he even wants to.
Writer-director Emmanuelle Bercot leads us through Mahony's downbeat story – from care to detention centre to prison, via a potentially life-changing relationship with a girl – with calm efficiency, only occasionally tipping her film into melodrama or allowing events in Mahony's life to feel more episodic or less convincing than they should. Certainly this same material might feel more special or meaningful in the hands of, say, the Dardenne brothers or Ken Loach. You wonder, too, why Bercot is so insistent at throwing Malony so much more of a compassionate lifeline than she does his mother, whose own vulnerability and tragedy receive short shrift. Yet, at the same time, Bercot has a keen eye for how Malony's macho bravado masks a deep inner pain and, as Malony, Paradot works hard to resist any easy sympathy we might have for his wayward, troubled character.