Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War is a simple enough concept: a game of “War” in the woods between two groups of children is dramatized as the film represents water balloon grenades and tree branch machine guns as actual artillery. At first glance the film reads as merely an excuse to have some fun, violent action with kids shooting each other up and tossing out plentiful F-bombs –all of which happen with glorious frequency– except it doesn’t take long for the film to start going deeper, doing more. This a film with things to say and show about what it means to be unpopular, to be weird, to be growing up, to be jealous, to be angry, and to start realizing that the world as you’ve always seen it might not be the same for much longer. Add that thematic depth to a perfectly tuned execution of the playtime war concept and you have what I would consider the best child combat movie ever.
I Declare War is everything The Hunger Games attempts to be, but better- it says more with less, goes farther while staying smaller, and finds reality in a more fantastical scenario. Unlike The Hunger Games or Battle Royale, the film sets up two groups of kids in a more traditional tactical situation with splinter battles and regrouping rather than episodic combat. The two groups are led by PK and Quinn, the former a “War” champ who feels he’s finally found a worthy opponent in the latter. The game changes almost immediately though when a coup leaves Skinner –a hotheaded and angry kid who lacks foresight or a sense of strategy– in charge of Quinn’s squadron. On PK’s side we find the brash Joker and the gentle Kwon, who is the film’s warm, beating heart and PK’s best friend.
Through a combination of character dialogue and an animated opening title sequence, the film elegantly delivers the rules of the game, which boil down to a game of capture the flag which requires you to stay paralyzed if “shot” and to go home if “killed.” In the game, death occurs when you are hit with a karo syrup-filled red balloon, which are carried by specifically selected individuals on each team. It’s a simple set of rules that are basic enough for the kids to stick to, but specific enough that there is real tension.
One of the best characteristics of I Delcare War is that it does not rely on the shocking gimmick of child violence to be memorable- the violence is almost entirely conveyed through a mixture of perfect sound design, clever camera work, and the gushing red of water balloons. You’re not going to see visions of children with limbs blown off or guts spilling it out- nor will you wish for them. The violence occasionally gets a little more intense when the tension between the kids ramps up and bleeds outside of the game into some real aggression, but it never crosses a line that turns it into an adult movie, per se. The other wonderful dynamic in the film is the tension between the children’s play perspective, and the reality of what they’re doing. A kid’s weapon will shift back and forth between being a cobbled together wooden M-16 and an actual piece of hardware within a scene as dictated by the mindset of the kids, which accentuates whatever drama is going on at a given time.
The cast is filled out by absolutely excellent child actors that collectively deliver what has to be one of the best group kid performances ever captured. There’s a line reading that falls flat here or there, but most of the film you’ll spend shocked at how charismatic and natural so many of these kids are. They’re in their element here and even Mackenzie Monroe, who plays the film’s lone girl and the oldest kid, walks between being a kid and a burgeoning young woman very well. Hers is just one of the many journeys of self-discovery in the film- she struggles with a blossoming sexual dynamic that gives her power over some of the infatuated boys, while she herself struggles to fit in as a competent strategist. Leader PK looks to maintain his status as top dog among a group of kids who really just aren’t as invested as he is, while Skinner struggles with a much deeper anger and feeling of inadequacy that eventually forces the game to get a little too real. About a half dozen kids have fully realized arcs within the film, which bounce of each other and weave together into a well-resolved tapestry of childhood self-discovery. It’s beautiful, universal stuff that makes the action sequences that much more involving and fun to watch.
A Lord Of The Flies for a new generation, I Declare War deserves to be seen by adults and needs to be seen by kids. We don’t often get action films of any kind that have this much to say, much less films that are this delicately balanced between mainstream appeal and realistic intensity. Smart, touching, and exciting, I Declare War is sure to be one of your favorites of the year, once some distributor recognizes how great it is and gets it out there.
Rating: Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars