Advertised in Quebec (where it opens Sept. 26) as a wacky comedy about a rampaging child terror, “It’s Not Me, I Swear!” is in fact a bittersweet portrait of one prepubescent kid acting out against his dysfunctional family in ways that would send any teen straight to the reformatory. Delicately balanced between absurdity and tragedy by director Philippe Falardeau (“Congorama”), adapting Bruno Hebert’s 1997 novel and its 2000 sequel, this adventuresome, accomplished piece should ride critical acclaim to solid home-turf returns and a fair shot at offshore arthouse distribution.
Ten-year-old Leon Dore (Antoine L’Ecuyer) has a history of what he calls “my deadly accidents” — near-fatal incidents that might be interpreted as genuine suicide attempts, cries for attention or just expressions of very warped humor. Older brother Jerome (Gabriel Maille) pines for familial normalcy, something denied by the actions of Leon — who thinks everything is abnormal, and behaves with the antisocial freedom such belief allows.
Their frustrated-painter mom (Suzanne Clement) doesn’t help much; she doesn’t discourage Leon’s antics so much as cover his tracks, advising, “It’s bad to lie, but it’s worse to lie badly.” She’s always fighting with their dad (Daniel Briere), a public-interest lawyer. Leon’s method of ending their quarrels is to set the house on fire.
Having had enough, mom decides to leave. While dad and Jerome resent this betrayal, Leon simply can’t believe she isn’t coming back. He awaits her return by amping up his usual activities, i.e., trashing the house next door when its annoyingly well-adjusted family goes on vacation.
Leon decides he’ll have to get money — via theft, of course — to visit his mother in Greece if she won’t come home on her own. This scheme is aided by new best friend Lea (Catherine Faucher), who has her own issues. The duo plot a getaway that doesn’t go as planned. But the subsequent fade suggests everyone might at last be able to move on a little less dysfunctionally.
Falardeau changes some elements from the source novels, but maintains — and pulls off — considerable complexity of tone, juggling kitsch nostalgia (the late-1960s suburban Quebec setting is lovingly rendered), a child’s take on the grown-up world, some mordant humor and a poignant undercurrent that at times becomes painfully overt.
Child thesps are remarkably self-assured in complicated roles, adults solid in support. Highlight of a well-turned production package is Andre Turpin’s deft cinematography, which offers numerous striking overhead shots.