When a child is forced to grow up too soon, who can tell which of their piecemeal impressions of the world — gleaned from TV news reports, overheard adult conversations and garbled schoolyard gossip — they’ll have taken to heart and cobbled into a plan of action? In the case of Canadian actor and director Luc Picard’s “Cross My Heart,” a sensitive adaptation of Nicole Bélanger’s novel “Les Rois Mongols,” there are two main factors that govern the radical course taken by solemn 12-year-old Manon (Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau). She won’t be separated from her adored (and adorable) younger brother Mimi (Anthony Bouchard), and her family is disintegrating during the infamous 1970 October Crisis in Quebec.
Among the things that float into Manon’s absorbent psyche are the worsening illness of her father (Martin Desgagnés), her mother’s fragility and mounting financial woes, the dread term “foster care” and the background hubbub about the kidnapping of two government officials by a separatist paramilitary group. “Are they good or bad?” Manon asks her father. “They’re good guys doing a bad thing,” he replies. Her crash course in moral relativism is curtailed, however, when her overwhelmed mother (Maude Laurendeau) can no longer cope and brings in a social worker (Sophie Cadieux), who threatens not only to send Manon and Mimi away, but to send them separately. In cahoots with her cousins, Martin (Henri Richer-Picard) and Denis (Alexis Guay), Manon half-bakes a plan to kidnap a wheelchair-bound old lady (Clare Coulter) and bring her to a deserted shack in the countryside. There they can all hole up, using her as leverage for their freedom, not to put too fine a point on it, to self-determine.
The fact that this makes very little sense is almost a strength of Picard and Belanger’s screenplay: We’re made painfully aware of the youth and vulnerability of these kids by the massive blind spots and general myopia of this harebrained scheme — the logic of which is better suited to a pillow fort or a tree house than the real, dangerous world. And it seems perfectly natural that their intentions change again as they settle into a new rhythm. Their act of violence actually gives rise to a temporary idyll in which the inherent sweetness and bruised idealism of these young people even wins over their captive (who, in a flourish more poignant than wholly believable does not speak a word of French). “What do you want from me?” she asks querulously. “We want you to be our grandmother” comes the reply, and by that stage it’s not a ploy to calm a hostage but a real desire, and she positively melts in response.
With deft direction for his young actors, a feel for gentle comedy and an almost-too-precise eye for period detailing, Picard polishes the film to a fine gleam, enhanced by the control of François Dutil’s warm, chocolate, mustard and claret-colored images. All of this smoothes over the rough edges — it’s not every family drama that attempts to reconcile a child’s-eye adventure story with divisive questions about terrorists versus freedom-fighters and the ends justifying the means. But though the theme can loosely be read as analogous to the Quebecois independence movement, with the region paralleling the neglected offspring of distracted or enfeebled parents, the primary design here is not to push a political agenda or to make these children into metaphorical martyrs. It’s really just a bittersweet tale of kids teaching the adult world a thing or two about loyalty and family and being true to your word; promise-keeping is central to “Cross My Heart,” but no one hopes to die.