Younger readers may not remember the days before cell phones and the internet when kids would regularly go outside and play for hours, often with nothing but their imaginations to entertain themselves. I Declare War hearkens back to those days, following a group of 13-year-olds as they enact an elaborate, ongoing game of war in the woods. Armed with sticks as guns and water balloons filled with red paint as grenades, two armies face off in an effort to capture the other team’s flag. That’s vaguely interesting on its own, but there’s more: the filmmakers alternate showing footage of the kids walking through the woods with their stick weapons and footage of them carrying actual weapons. We’re brought into the minds of the kids, seeing what they see and giving the game a greater sense of importance.
PK’s (Gage Monroe) base is decorated with the captured flags of previous victories, and he’s never lost a game of war in his life. He’s a master strategist, spending his free time watching movies like Patton and studying the real battles of history to learn new tactics. For the first time, he’s actually facing a worthy opponent: Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), a mastermind every bit PK’s equal. But when a bullied-turned-bully underling named Skinner turns the tables with an unpredictable coup, the game is thrown into upheaval and many of the rules (established in a nifty animated credits sequence) are abandoned.
There’s a collectively shared imagination among the players that reminded me of the way the Lost Boys interact with each other in Spielberg’s Hook; they acknowledge when someone has “fired” a weapon – be it a bazooka or a machine gun – and react accordingly. But unlike Spielberg’s family-friendly atmosphere of Never Land, the woods of I Declare War at times take on the feel of a real battleground. Skinner takes PK’s best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) prisoner and tortures him – not fake torturing, like the gunfire in the movie, but real, actual torture – and expletives fly faster than imaginary bullets. The constant swearing – which many will likely praise for adding a level of realism to the proceedings (“this is how kids actually talk!” I can imagine them saying) – sounds forced, taking away from the movie’s authentic feel.
Since the kids are all full of hormones, affections and loyalties are tested as the game stretches on. The lone female in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Monro), falls in love with one of the other players; when the object of her affection is unexpectedly “killed,” she utilizes her feminine strengths to manipulate the boys on the battlefield in an effort to avenge her fallen loved one. She’s an expert at playing the guys off each other, and there are some moments of betrayal (perceived or otherwise) that feel extremely accurate to that age group: everything from a glance to a brushing of the hand can be monumental, and have massive consequences.There’s some serious “Lord of the Flies” stuff going on in here, especially with the torturing scenes at the center of the action. The movie ditches its lighthearted premise in favor of allegories to modern warfare, but a lot of those elements felt wedged in and not completely organic to the story. I Declare War sits below Battle Royale when it comes to movies that explore themes of brutality through child actors, and though I wasn’t head over heels for it, there are still enough compelling and thought-provoking aspects (including a climax that makes you re-examine the loyalties you’ve held for the entire film thus far) to justify checking it out. The film is in limited theaters now and it’s currently available on VOD. Until next time…
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