The fog of fake war hangs thick around the bodies – and psyches – of these kids getting lost in the woods and in their imaginations. No doubt most of us can recall childhood games of strategy that involved hiding, stalking, and using a variety of wooden or plastic weapons to best opponents, be it war or cops and robbers. What I Declare War does beautifully is mix this basic angst with representations of repressed emotions and anguish.
The kids in the film wage war in a very serious game of capture the flag where the rules are clear. Getting “shot” leaves you paralyzed for a ten count. If you’re hit with an exploding “grenade,” you’re dead and must leave the battlefield. Guns are made of sticks and tin cans and the grenades are water balloons, but the young soldiers view them as real steel instruments of destruction. And often that’s how we see them, too.
One army is led by undefeated general P.K. (Gage Munroe), a braces-wearing commander raised on war films who displays previously captured flags high in a treehouse command center. He’s opposed by Skinner (Michael Friend), a bigger kid who orchestrated a swift coup d’etat to seize control of his militia. Skinner’s not as interested in the integrity of the game as he is dealing an ego-blow to P.K., which includes the kidnap and “torture” of his top lieutenant Kwan (Siam Yu).
Are violent video games to blame for these kids’ obsession with battle? Have the movies corrupted their fragile little minds? Perhaps to some degree, but the film thankfully isn’t shallow in its rhetoric and is more concerned with internal struggles rather than superficial influences.
Video games are mentioned more than once and Joker (Spencer Howes) has reached a saturation point with superhero films, often envisioning bolts of light emitting from his eyes and eviscerating his rivals. But in the real world, more troubling are his attempts to bully timid newcomer Wesley (Andy Reid) out of his shell and into the game. Also joining the game is first-timer Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the only girl of the group, whose hallucinations involve a crush on a fallen comrade. Her imaginary weapon is a crossbow – maybe her crew walked by a Hunger Games poster en route to the woods.
Everyone in the game has something to prove and everyone and everything has a purpose. Writer Jason Lapeyre and his co-director Robert Wilson fit all their characters into archetypes that translate to the battle. As can be expected with unproven child actors, performances are decidedly not on the level of George C. Scott in Patton; however, a script with an ear for how kids speak when unsupervised helps mask some inconsistencies in dialogue delivery. The steadiest are Munroe as the blindly earnest P.K., who loses track of real-life relationships during the game, and Friend, as his adversary, desperately trying to seize victory and compensate for torment experienced on the homefront.
Viewers could politicize and break down the shenanigans in I Declare War in any number of ways, claiming it glorifies or opposes warmongering. And maybe they’d be right, but the heavy social commentary takes a backseat to the tween recognition that there are real consequences to your actions – both on and off the fields of imaginary battle. It’s a coming of age genuinely realized through fantasy meeting a cold dose of truth.