Children partaking in playtime often make games of the routine responsibilities performed by adults. It doesn’t mean certain kids lack creativity; it’s that so much of childhood revolves around mimicking grownups as a means of adapting and surviving in a society they didn’t create. These can be games as innocuous as playing “house,” or as hazardous as playing “war.” Both of these types of play require roles and rules, the parameters already established by generations of tradition and convention. Children, however, are adept at bending those rules to suit their self-centered purposes when it comes to pretending.
I Declare War (2013) is a story of organized battle filtered through the lens of 12 and 13 year olds. It uses classic war films, as well as elements of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, as a template for a tale of two factions of children participating in a summertime war game. Each team is bound to a coda established to ensure fair play in a quest to capture the other team’s flag. When those rules are broken, bad things happen.
Plucky PK (Greg Munroe), is the undefeated leader of a team with brutish Joker (Spencer Howes), best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) and newcomer Wesley (Andy Reid). They are up against the formidable Quinn (Aiden Gouveia), certain he’s got the perfect strategic brain to battle PK’s impressive record. That is, until Quinn is ousted in a coup d’état by villainous Skinner (Michael Friend). Skinner has nefarious plans for the rival team that goes beyond simply capturing a flag; he longs for revenge for a past transgression by PK.
The filmmakers smartly eschew an adult presence, and instead, concoct a hermetically-sealed microcosm where kids make and break their own rules of engagement without adult interference. Though the film is delivered with periods of levity, the use of children to comment on the horror of war is affecting and often harrowing. In what is likely to provoke controversy, weapons rendered from sticks and string become realistic guns and bazookas when the film crosses over into the imaginations of the children. Though the viewer knows this is a fantasy constructed in their minds, one cannot help but feel tension toward their susceptibility—however imaginary—to the real explosions and bullets of that context.
With an obvious reverence for war and action films (the works of Kubrick and Coppola come to mind), directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson assign familiar character archetypes to their impressive cast as a means of exploring pre-pubescent angst and confusion. Their intention is a portrayal of the narrow, urgent “life or death” view—no matter how trivial the circumstance—of their immediate world. Within these sweltering woods, winning is everything. There is a particular desperation apparent in this game, the kids realizing, perhaps, that this is the last summer before moving on as teenagers.
I Declare War possesses a glaring problem with the handling of its one female character; Jess (Mackenzie Murno) is encouraged to use her “special powers” as a female in order to gain an advantage over the other team. At first she is apprehensive, but succumbs to her expected role, especially as she finds it’s working. In her own innocent way, she seduces not only the opposing team, but also her own in order to prove herself worthy of participation in the war. It’s a move that makes the wholly capable and smart character rather unlikable, as well as stereotypical. Since the other characters are all archetypes found in standard war and action films—Caleb as the “strong and silent noble savage” usually portrayed by Sonny Landham, Wesley is the “pacifist man-of-the-cloth”—this may be just another familiar archetype—the seductive female assassin—Lapeyre was trying to work into the story.
This criticism aside, I Declare War is an accomplished and riveting work. It’s a film that doesn’t shy away from its intended provocations, but still maintains an innocence that justifies comparisons to the film Stand By Me. It’s a coming-of-age film if set in Kubrick’s vision for Full Metal Jacket or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Here, however, the horror runs a spectrum as broad as being tortured for information to the heartbreaking rejection of the cute girl in class. For kids in the throes of puberty, these examples may be one and the same.