Review: I Declare War

I saw I Declare War at Actionfest last year where it won the festival’s Best Picture and Best Screenplay awards. I was excited that Drafthouse Films picked up the movie so everyone would get a chance to see it, and its legit release gives me a chance to expand on my views. This is the kind of special movie that plays at film festivals so if you want to know why I keep going to all these places looking for films you’ve never heard of, this is one example. Writer/director Jason Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson made a movie with unknown kids that’s thrilling, intelligent and emotional.

Kids play a war game in the woods, following strategic tactics more comprehensive than most of the graphic grown-up war movies, and follow the sincere conventions of the genre. PK (Gage Munroe) leads our heroic group while the bullyish Skinner (Michael Friend) leads their opponents. Their toy guns and balloon grenades become real military props and pyrotechnic explosions on film, which is a cute visual but the beauty of the film is in treating this backyard game with the gravitas of a movie starring adults and lots of blood.

In fact, the only criticism I have is that an animated credits sequence explains the rules of the war game. I think it was clear from the action of the movie itself. We see a kid who got “shot” count to 10 before getting up, while his opponent calls for a grenade. So we can see that a gunshot equals a 10 count, and you’re only “dead” if you get hit by a grenade. We could have figured out that each team has a flag just by following along, but it’s okay. Now no one can possibly complain they don’t understand the rules, because there’s a nifty sequence that explains how this game is played.

The players all respect the rules, although each side finds ways to manipulate them. Skinner comes up with taking a prisoner, which isn’t necessarily allowed but it isn’t expressly forbidden. PK is basically a military genius who calls in ringers and figures out the upheavals going on in Skinner’s camp. He studies real war strategies and applies them to his game. PK also outsmarts his soldier’s “Would You Rather” game, which I love. I like how this kid thinks, so he could be playing war games or LARPing or doing just about anything and I’d want to see how he circumvents the linear path.

Now, they’re all playing with fake guns and balloon grenades so the worst that can happen to anyone is they’re “out” and have to go home, yet those stakes are crucial for the undefeated PK. Yet there is a hint of danger because kids could always take things too far. There’s some roughhousing despite it being “pretend,” and the sequence with the prisoner goes too far because, well, they’re boys. The danger of kids using poor judgment is a palpable threat and it is not abused for the sake of stakes. It is simply a layer in the tension of the war game.

You’ll recognize some war movie moments but you may have to look for them. One character is an altar boy at his church, so they call him Priest (Andy Reid) and he actually brings spirituality into the imaginary foxhole. Several of the kids talk about their plans for after the war game. Whether they win or lose, they’ll hang out and watch a movie, or Jess (Mackenzie Munro) hopes to see France one day. That’s soldiers talking about what they want to do when they get out of the Army. Don’t worry, these kids don’t die like the war movie clichés, but their hopes and dreams are as valid in cinematic terms. I’m not comparing watching DVDs to real soldiers getting home to their loved ones. I’m only noting the application of a cinematic cliché to a youthful format.

There are some real character moments revealed through the mounting tension of the “battle,” and each of the characters in Skinner and PK’s armies is distinct. I appreciate going the extra mile to make I Declare War about something relevant to kids and adult viewers, but the real feat is making a thrilling war movie without any actual bullets or explosions where you’re totally invested in who wins. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.