Writer-director Sontenish Myers, along with producer Elizabeth Charles, have crafted an exquisitely perceptive drama about sisterly solidarity in the face of trauma and secrets.
Young teen Julette — nicknamed Minnie by her family — is on a trip to Jamaica with her cousin Sarah. But while the island is undeniably beautiful and idyllic, Sarah is withdrawn, troubled and isolates herself from the rest of the family, especially her uncle Melvin. When Julette tries to pull Sarah out of her shell, she learns her beloved cousin’s secret, changing the way she sees her family forever.
Well-written and directed with intentionality and care, the film isn’t coy about the nature of Sarah’s secret, and is intelligent and sensitive on its portrayal of sexual abuse, and how it forces its victims into silence while protecting its perpetrators. What’s unique is that the narrative focuses on a different viewpoint outside the victim-perpetrator nexus. By exploring on how Julette learns about Sarah’s secret and its ripple effect within her emotional landscape, it not only creates a mystery that propels Julette forward, but opens up interesting thematic territory that explores how abuse affects the larger ecosystem of the family, and how those dynamics echo then in the larger cultural context.
It also allows for the relationship between the cousins to come to the fore, creating a beautifully textured and intimate give-and-take between two young women navigating the fraught entrance into adulthood. The relationship is clearly a space for both girls to fully see, hear and witness one another — not to mention laugh and have fun — so when Sarah pushes Julette out, it rings as a great loss for Julette.
Visually, the two girls are often situated together in tight close-ups in dark spaces, making for an intensely intimate exploration of character and emotion. These shots are juxtaposed against more distant shots of the male relatives or wide shots of the girls amidst nature, which settle the film’s rhythms within Jamaican culture and nature. The mix of tactile intimacy with studied distance evokes British indie filmmakers like Lynne Ramsay or Andrea Arnold, who also employ an composed, artful naturalism to explore women’s subjectivity amidst difficult social conditions.
With its oscillation between the internal and situational, the film rests on the dynamic, natural performances of its young performers, particularly Jordan-Amanda Hall as Julette and Jhada Ann Walker as Sarah. Both actors show a great delicacy and bravery with difficult material, showing great nuance with tough emotional circumstances, as well as treading the line between youthful innocence and wary womanhood. They make the journey believable, sympathetic and resonant for audiences, and when Julette feels compelled to act, viewers know it is out of her deep love for Sarah.
But when Sarah gently reminds her that it’s not her secret to tell, the film also offers a graceful lesson in what it means to support the victims of abuse in our lives. There is much discussion now about “centering” stories and what it means to be an ally. But deeply empathetic storytelling like the kind found in “Cross My Heart” accomplishes these abstract ideas through artful and meticulous craft, emotionally complex narrative and nuanced performances, using the age-old desire to walk in another’s shoes to bring experiences and characters out of the shadows and into the light.