While containing the inherent inexperience that comes with an entire cast of twelve-year olds, Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s I Declare War proves potent from the simple fact these minors portray soldiers without censor. Hollywood is chock full of war movies these days focusing on the strategic wizardry of officers barking orders from HQ, spies sent to manipulate the enemy, and grunts made to willfully sacrifice themselves on the frontlines amidst a fire fight. But what is the measure of their impact on the young audiences fed tales of glory in theaters and videogames? Our world overflows with unfettered access to every atrocity on the planet with the media pushing boundaries of taste every passing second—see Rolling Stones current, abhorrent cover—numb to the fact our children’s innocence has become collateral damage.
It’s easy to say, “There’s always been war” or “Patriotic heroes are a necessary marketing tool to keep our military populated and our safety secure” or “Violence is in our nature so cowboys versus Indians can’t help but turn into sanctimonious Americans versus Arab terrorists.” While all this is true, it’s not the game that has been rendered dangerous. No, it’s the escalation of information availability inside an era where adolescent maturation occurs at an unimaginably young age. Kids glean details of what’s happening around them all the time and now they’re shared with an R-rating that’s disenfranchising a once youthful sheen of optimism and empathy. Subsequent generations always prove more cutthroat in their war games, but today’s desensitized pre-teens have had their imaginations usurped by the prevalence of tragic imagery seen from the comfort of home.
What does today’s new game look like you ask? Well, that’s where Lapeyre and Wilson come in. I Declare War begins in the middle of the suburban forest as PK (Gage Munroe) and Kwon (Siam Yu) lurk about to get the jump on their adversary Scott (Alex Wall)—the boys engaged in a high-concept rendition of Capture the Flag with the undefeated PK facing off against newcomer Quinn (Aidan Gouveia) as enemy Generals playing with classmates as though pieces on a chess board. Gunshot wounds result in a paralyzed state canceled by a slow ten-count; a water-balloon grenade provides the only means of a kill with dead soldiers sent home; and rules state each team’s base must remain where it was to start. Victory is achieved when an opponent’s flag finds itself in the other General’s hands.
Instead of mere fun and games between friends, however, this particular installment finds its stakes growing serious. As PK revels in the chance to go against a boy of equal intelligence—his own knowledge of war strategy nuance courtesy of watching Patton multiple times—Quinn relishes the opportunity to lead his underdog team towards an upset. But as any heated conflict in any type of situation harbors underlining emotions and personal vendettas, this battle hides a slew of ulterior motives we should expect to materialize with children their age. Boredom sets in, annoyance rears its head, and puppy love threatens to both salvage and ruin an opportunity for success. And while our brave soldiers fight abroad to protect the lives of their kin back home, these kids join the fray to simply be included and hopefully liked.
Petty differences and juvenile hang-ups reveal themselves in bouts of violent rage that turn this would-be harmless game into actual combat. A coup to overthrow one team’s leader occurs on a whim of frustration; physical torture replaces the usual water balloon to the stomach signifying a walk back home; and the taste of winning despite all costs overtakes sportsmanship as the slippery slope of power remorselessly corrupts. The script finds ways to inject the participants’ actual maturity levels too as lone girl Jess (Mackenzie Munro) fantasizes the boy she likes is fawning by her side; loquacious Frost (Alex Cardillo) lets his exuberance get the best of him; and PK and Kwon talk about hanging out afterwards for dinner. However, the harsh reality of backstabbing vengeance never quite disappears once the first drop of blood is drawn.
Juxtaposed against this Lord of the Flies severity tinting the proceedings is an unbelievable sense of cinematic charm. Weaponry constantly shifts from the soldiers’ imaginations of high-powered artillery to the literal duct taped sticks they hold in their hands. We see the combustion of gun powder leave their muzzles, watch the damage each bullet wreaks on the foliage used for cover, and get caught in the action when balloons explode like mortar shells feet from their targets. And even though we know Jess carries a slingshot, witnessing her point a loaded crossbow at her enemy can’t help but make one hold his breath when paired with her manipulations and extremely focused planning for victory. Even Frost’s infectious joy can’t quite be accepted when we’re unable to stop feeling like it will cause his death at any moment.
The film’s an impressively compelling allegory on society’s ease towards brushing off mass destruction by telling themselves it’s too far away to be real while also showing the astute minds of children we can no longer assume are ignorant to those same horrors. These boys and girl are tested and few if any pass as each one’s belief of being smarter and better than the next results in a deserved hubristic comeuppance. Whether Michael Friend‘s Skinner losing all morality, Munroe’s PK’s smugly false security in thinking he has an advantage; or Spencer Howes‘ Joker providing indifference-laden brute force, no one is innocent save Yu’s ever-obedient Kwon. But with racial slurs, physical abuse, and real weapons working their way in, it isn’t difficult to understand the cold, steely demeanor taught to soldiers overseas is rapidly being learned in our own backyards.
The saddest truth, however, is that such thinking may be the only way these kids can survive the harsh conditions of a contemporary childhood that has gotten out of control. Weakness and fear is smelled and pounced upon. Adolescence has become war and as the news shows us every day, not every child is coming out alive.
I Declare War is now on VOD and hits limited theaters August 30th.