Unless you're a saint, I'm sure you would have lied at one point in time when you're a kid, gotten away with it, and just became reaffirmed that hey, it's not so bad that you're not going to Hell immediately, and one could just come up with stories to spice things up, get others into trouble, or just get things done your way without paying heed to consequences that can be explained away. I never had such luck. Honest.
It's Not Me, I Swear! conjures up plenty in its tale of the neighbourhood rascal who terrorizes the residents in a quaint little town in 60s Montreal, and with his striped jersey that we see early on in the film, one cannot help but to associate him with another boy rascal in Dennis the Menace. But this is Leon (Antoine L'Ecuyer), a boy with a vivid imagination and a fearless heart, that when we first see him, he had unwittingly hung himself on a tree swing, needing his brother Jerome (Gabriel Maille) and mom Madeleine (Suzanne Clement) to bail him out of serious trouble.
And when all seemed under control, we slowly learn that this boy isn't quite always the helpless chap he is, but a real troublemaker who doesn't hesitate to show others his middle finger, whose impish grin betrays the scheming thoughts he has, to do things he wants to do his way, nevermind if it means stepping onto others complete with unbelievable anti-social behaviour (which adds to the fun of course), and you'd wonder how he manages to get away with it all. Then you realize that it's because of upbringing. Teach a child that lying is bad, but lying badly is worse. Tell a child that when one has to lie, one has to keep the story consistent. Leon's mom coaches him on such mantra, shows the same degree of disdain and disgust for her neighbours, and it's little wonder who his chief influence is. Parents out there, you have been warned.
It's the story of this street smart boy whose brain is fast to cook up stories, and whose misplaced courage allows him to fearlessly inflict bodily pain or inconvenience onto himself if the situation or his lies call for it. It's both comical and wince-inducing with situations you can both laugh and cry at the same time, and you'll feel for Leon even more when his family starts to crack and deepens in their dysfunctional behaviour, with the last straw being their mom walking out on the family. Chief influence and protector gone, Leon retreats further into himself (in some ways pining in a manner similarly seen in Danny Boyle's Millions), and his stunts become a lot more daring, until the narrative shifts gear to the other woman in his life, that of his neighbour Lea (Catherine Faucher), a peer whom we are not given much background on, other than a slew of suggestions and clues that she may be an abused kid.
Based upon the novel by Bruno Hebert, the film works because Antoine L'Ecuyer successfully carries the entire film on his shoulders, and makes it believable that he's such the rascal that he is, where on one hand he can look angelic to both his mom and his first love Lea, while on the other the devil as he leaves a trail of destruction as he goes about prodding into other's homes armed with a screwdriver, amongst other shenanigans. Curiously though, director Philippe Falardeau allowed Leon to break the fourth wall at least twice to engage the audience directly, and while you may have missed the first instance should you not pay attention, the second one felt like a bit of a cop out to achieve what we see in the finale, in what I felt had taken away the shine from an excellent build up of suspense and danger, which will guarantee that you grip your seat.
Winner at last year's Berlin International Film Festival, walking away with the Crystal Bear for Beat Feature Film (General Kplus category) and the Deutsches Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prix, this is one film you should not miss during its limited run at Cinema Europa. Catch it before it goes away, and it waltzes early into my shortlist for one of the better films to be released this year so far. A definite recommendation!