Active Ingredients: Limited scope; Interest in imagination
Side Effects: Performances; Shallow representations of childhood
I Declare War posits a simple idea and uses it to animate the whole film: when kids play at war, it feels real to them. The central conceit of this film about, and not for, children is that a group of adolescent boys—and one girl who plays as well as any of them—create make-believe guns and bazookas out of tree branches and duct tape, while the audience sees instead the dangerous firearms they represent in the eyes of the combatants. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson toggle between the real and imagined weapons and use the visual gag to remind us of our powerful childhood imaginations, imaginations the film otherwise fails to ignite.
The children of I Declare War, especially the Patton-esque “General PK,” take their game of capture the flag deadly serious. Perhaps that’s why the film replaces sticks and stones with rifles and grenades. But without a matching sense of visual imagination in the camera, the only real explanation for the film’s gimmick is the novelty of watching children spray bullets. In the hands of a director like Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, The World’s End), however, an idea like this might have truly taken flight and inspired other stylistic flares in the DNA of the filmmaking itself. (The similarly themed Son of Rambow might be another comparison.)
The shortcomings of the crew and the young cast are distracting, and when the film should be drawing us further into the military tactics of the two opposing “generals” it seems to have outlasted its conceit. Still, I give Lapeyre and Wilson credit for limiting the scope of the story to the war game itself. We don’t need to see these characters eating breakfast or getting ready for school; we learn all we need to know from their conduct in battle. Some are mean, some are focused, some are flighty. Lapeyre and Wilson gesture towards the cruelty of young boys beyond war games, but the film grants each character precisely one behavioral issue to overcome. As a result, the boys become static stand-ins for a whole gamut of complex childhood emotions, and without that subtlety the film’s very real bullying feels as safe as its faux violence.