I Declare War is the movie that we all lived and experienced when we were young and outside playing with friends. It is the sort of movie that reminds you what it is like being a young kid and getting a group of friends together to play war. Whether you were the rich kids with your cool Nerf toys, engaging in neighborhood combat with super soakers or dare I say, using your imagination, you lived what this movie is showcasing; a group of kids using their imagination to play out an expansive game of capture the flag. The latest release from Drafthouse Films and directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson take that childhood game of war and turning it into a reflection on growing up between the time of being young and carefree, but also the looming notion of being a teen.
The rules of the game are simple in I Declare War, it’s a game of capture the flag. Two groups of kids are led by a general, one kid named PK (Gage Munroe) who comes off as watching Patton and Audie Murphy movies one too many times and the other general is Quinn (Aidan Gouveia) who is the older, calmer tactician in this war. Rules are simple, first person to capture the flag or the general wins. You are out of the game if you are downed by a red paint filled water balloon. The weapons are your imagination and the sticks that are lying around the play field.
What starts off as just another game morphs into two diverging ideas that the directors and kid actors explore during the course of the war. On one hand, this is a war movie like many others that have come before it. There are tropes that are used for action and war purposes, but it’s the progression of the game that ends up changing the kids, as they themselves just went through a tour of duty, ragged from the fighting and changed because of what they went through. Some people say that changes a person and it surely seems like it from the way friendships and bonds are formed and broken.
The other path that this movie dives into, and very well I must say, is the twilight years of being a pre-teen. The kids in the movie, who all are fantastic in this film, are around the 11-13 year age range, so they are still kids, but quickly becoming adults. The war game they are playing just accelerates their maturity as the game becomes darker and the true personalities of the kids start to develop. PK goes from a skillful player to a man ready to sacrifice his friends all for a win that doesn’t mean anything. Quinn is overthrown as general by Skinner (Michael Friend) who has an axe to grind with PK and takes it out on PK’s best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) who is a prisoner in their camp. Things become truly personal, as only kids can make them, thus chipping away at the veneer of the game into a full-fledged growing point for all involved.
It’s a fine balance that the movie strikes between being a serious piece about growing up into those dreadful teen years, but also being a cheeky movie that elevates the game of war with a stunning use of imagination from those playing. To us, they are using sticks and running around saying “bang bang”, but to them the sticks they hold are shotguns, pistols, machine guns and the balloons they throw explode in an array of sparks and fire. The imagination they use to project onto the game is wonderful, something we fully envisioned ourselves doing if in the same situation. I remember spending hours looking for the right stick that had that perfect bend that formed the stock of the gun that I can hold just right. We imagined that we were coming up with the cunning plan to win the game or going all out attacking the opposing teens base.
The filmmakers keep us planted in the make-believe by having the young actors carry prop weapons to add to the realism of the film, sometimes reminding us at just the right time that it’s really sticks they are holding on to. It certainly makes an impact seeing the kids carrying actual weapons instead of the sticks, while things begin to escalate, it all becomes a bit unnerving to watch. The acts of war committed in the movie aren’t just “pow pow, you’re dead”, but actual moments of terror as some take it a step further, torturing one of the young kids because he doesn’t like him.
All of the kid actors in this film are wonderful to watch, certainly the standouts being Gage Munroe and Siam Yu as best friends and brothers in war. Seeing their friendship slowly dissolve has it’s heartbreaking moments when it becomes apparent that the other is willing to risk it all for a stupid win. Michael Friend really does an unbelievable job as the villain of the film Skinner, taking his scorn friendship and using it to prove a point to PK. Also the lone female character of the movie, Jess played by Mackenzie Munro, is another particular favorite of this movie. Her character learns what it’s like to have a crush, but also realizing what her feminine charms are capable of in manipulating the male players of the game.
The movie is not without a few nagging issues which stem from the kids and the focus of the movie. Again, most of the children in the movie are just first time actors and very young, so there is a bit of roughness to some of the acting, but you do get that raw emotional acting that makes for some compelling and heartbreaking scenes of growing up. The focus of the movie shifts from the main characters to ancillary ones that are just pawns of the game. They are there to play and don’t think about anything other than just wanting to have fun, but the movie tries to flesh out their roles are bit more than they should instead of focusing on PK, Kwon and Skinner. They are the heart of the movie and their struggles essentially fuel overall narrative and tone of the movie.
I Declare War is a wonderful teen movie that illustrates the pangs of growing up and losing that twilight time between kid and teenager. The movie is a wonderful amalgamation of war and action tropes with a strong sense of imagination amongst the young cast and the visuals of seeing little kids playing a more amped up version of war. Kids, like we always do, take it more seriously than we should, where the game becomes the only important things in our lives and if you aren’t in it to win it, then go home and have a juice box.
Rating: 4 flags out of 5
by Nick Guzman