Title: I Declare War
Directors: Jason Lapeyre, Robert Wilson
Starring: Siam Yu, Gage Munroe, Mackenzie Munro, Michael Friend, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke
If war is hell, then adolescence is too, in its own differentiated, downscale way. “I Declare War,” a brilliant, terrifically imaginative comedy of commingled nostalgia and allegory, gets this, on a gut level. Co-directed by Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, the film unfolds as a surreal, seriocomic riff on “Lord of the Flies,” exposing the hidden seams of psychological depth present in war-as-playtime, wherein kids (mostly boys) first start trying on some of the absolutes and certitude of adulthood.
Unfolding entirely in a sprawling woods, “I Declare War” tells the story of an especially spirited game of Capture the Flag, wherein a bunch of 12-year-olds act out fantasy aggressions that bleed over into the rivalries and burgeoning crushes of unglimpsed “normal” lives. This is their playtime, but it’s deadly serious. With the help of his best friend Paul (Siam Yu), P.K. (Gage Munroe) has never lost a war. His side is matched up against Quinn (Aiden Gouveia), who’s similarly invested in strategy, but when Quinn is overthrown by his impulsive, angry lieutenant, Skinner (Michael Friend), it upsets the normal rhythms of war.
Since there’s nothing explicitly against it in the rules (which dictate things like remaining motionless and counting to 10 after being shot), Skinner keeps Paul hostage rather than “killing” him (via a paint-filled grenade, which sends the deceased home), figuring P.K. will have to mount a rescue operation that can be easily defeated. Skinner’s leadership — loud, but lacking in any specifics, forget nuance — makes things difficult for Jessica (Mackenzie Munro), as well as Frost (Alex Cardillo) and Trevor (Dyson Fyke), who sort of serve as the film’s Abbott and Costello.
One of the things that’s most immediately arresting about “I Declare War” is the forcefulness and glee with which it blurs lines of entertainment and quasi-uncomfortable exploitation. “This is war, man — not fucking hopscotch!” exclaims P.K. Most importantly, though, the sticks the kids use for guns manifest as real weapons, and so firefights unfold with all the decibel-appropriate, shoot-’em-up intensity of a straightforward action flick. (Blood-letting is still kept mostly representative, but the movie does touch on torture and bullying in a forthright manner that evidences a clear erosion of innocence).
A good comparative leaping-off point for “I Declare War” is perhaps something like Garth Jennings’ “Son of Rambow,” which has an inventive hook, is likewise caught up in adolescent preoccupations with brawny combat, and displays a somewhat similar exploding sugar-rush imagination. “I Declare War,” though, is darker, albeit in a way that realistically digs into both the creativity and warped value system of youth. (Whether that ethical compass is under-developed or in the process of being corrupted by adult fallibilities is left somewhat open for debate.)
Working from a script by Lapeyre, the film mixes play-acted violence with a few bursts of the real thing, but is threaded throughout with hearty ribbons of humor both dark (would-you-rather questioning, and foul offered bets involving dog crap) and light (“No, I’m not quitting, I’ll be back later — I just want some juice,” says one participant, opting for a break). It all rings true, and the characters are extraordinarily well sketched — believable as kids, but also touching on well-worn war film archetypes, for comedic effect.
Ray Dumas’ evocative cinematography highlights a remarkable, streamlined technical package, and a uniformly excellent adolescent cast speaks to the exacting nature of the superb direction. (Friend especially, in all his awkward bluster, captures — whether by skill or managed happy-accident — the essence of that kid with whom everyone else in the neighborhood hates to play.) Original, engaging and thought-provoking, “I Declare War” eschews sentimentality or (potentially far worse) wink-wink satire to deliver a series of rather remarkably hard-hitting adult truths, wrapped up in the guise of a film about kids.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements, “I Declare War” is also currently available across VOD platforms. For more information, visit http://drafthousefilms.com/film/i-declare-war.
Written by: Brent Simon