There are kids’ movies, and then there are movies about kids. I DECLARE WAR falls into the latter category – although the “violence” in the movie is mostly imaginary, the kids do drop enough F-bombs to insure that this likely won’t be a Saturday morning casual drop in the DVD tray for the average family. But I’m also certain that any twelve-year-old that watches the movie would instantly relate to the characters, if not to the situation; much like today’s teens still relate to John Hughes movies, even though they are before their time.
The rules of I DECLARE WAR are simple – get shot, and you have to count down from 10 before you can move. If you’re tagged with a red grenade, it’s game over, and you go home. PK (Gage Munroe) takes his war very seriously, but he didn’t count on Skinner (Michael Friend) to pull his own coup on his own team leader and go rogue. Between the two is Kwon (Siam Yu), PK’s friend but Skinner’s prisoner. Meanwhile, the one girl in the game, Jess (Mackenzie Munro) manipulates both sides to her own devious ends. Relationships become tested, loyalties are challenged, and if the first casualty of war is innocence, then the second may very well be friendship.
Adults tend to treat kids and their concerns a bit lightly; too lightly for kids’ tastes. For them, what’s happening right now, in the present, is the most important thing in their world. Even in play kids are trying to work out the dynamics of their relationships, and I DECLARE WAR shows that in a concise but original manner. Each character has their personal motivation within their actions, and characters that come off at first as jerks have motives for their behavior, and kids that seem to be the “hero” of the piece are actually more complicated than that simple designation.
Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson have fashioned a fun, exciting movie from a simple premise and have created characters that are memorable and feel genuine. It doesn’t hurt that the kids also give terrific performances, especially Michael Friend as Skinner, who channels so many great war movie characters it’s difficult to keep track of them all – a little Brando, a little Berenger, a little Penn – but also manages to find the wounds underneath the bluster. Gage Munroe, as PK, is a genuine leader, but also just a child, with a child’s concerns and reasoning. Siam Yu plays Kwon as the boy caught in the middle of PK’s and Skinner’s machinations, and he’s loyal to PK but worries about how far PK is willing to take this seemingly simple child’s game. Mackenzie Munro pulls a full-on YOJIMBO on both sides, using her mind and her feminine wiles against the boys to achieve her own ends, and she’s wonderful.
The violence of I DECLARE WAR shouldn’t concern anyone; the filmmakers take great pains to show that everything is imaginary. It’s also not as full of action as the premise promises – Lapeyre and Wilson are more interested in the relationships. But the action, when it happens, is shot very well and intensely. I’m still trying to figure out how these kids lifted these automatic weapons to fire them, much less shoot accurately. The gun Gage Munroe wields looks bigger than his arm. The training these kids went through pays off in a big way, and parents might think the movie isn’t being responsible in the portrayal of firearms, but it would be dishonest to show the action any other way. There’s a realism to it that feels true to how the kids are feeling at that moment, and feels right in the context of what is happening.
If there’s one drawback to this movie it’s this – while the characters are easily relatable, I’m not sure if the basic story is. Most kids today (and I know this sounds like old-man-on-the-porch stuff, but there it is) probably don’t play war, and definitely not to the extent that these kids do in I DECLARE WAR, which feels like it was shot on the same locations that Steven Soderbergh shot the second half of CHE. There’s some terrific cinematography in I DECLARE WAR, and Ray Dumas gives the movie an epic look that fits its scale.
Not every character is given as much attention as PK and Skinner are – Wesley (Andy Reid) could have used a little bit more screen time, and his story arc isn’t as satisfactory as the others. The same is true for Joker (Spencer Howes), a kid with the habit of making people explode with his mind when he gets particularly frustrated, but it doesn’t go anywhere, really. Frost (Alex Cardillo) and Sikorski (Dyson Fyke) have been best friends forever, and Jess manages to plant a seed of doubt into that dynamic that’s funny to see pay off. But the movie is strongest when it sticks with PK and Skinner.
Lapeyre and Wilson treat the kids seriously. These aren’t simply pieces of potential to them; these are fully-formed human beings, with genuine concerns and reasoning, and the respect that the filmmakers show for the kids and their characters shows in every aspect of I DECLARE WAR. Kids are always feeling treated like they don’t matter in the larger scheme of things, but I DECLARE WAR puts them in their element – these kids are controlling and guiding their world, and learning a little bit about themselves and their friends in the process, and in the end they feel like they really do matter, even if it’s in something as seemingly trivial as playtime.
It is the empathy that the filmmakers show to each and every one of their characters in I DECLARE WAR that gives the movie much of its power, and thus makes the audience care about these kids. Our friendships in our childhood really do matter to us as much as any important relationship when we are adults; it’s how we figure out our place in the world, and who we want to share this crazy journey with. I DECLARE WAR, like STAND BY ME before it, knows that the destination is not nearly as important as the journey, and the people you bring with you. I loved every moment of I DECLARE WAR, and for me so far, this is my favorite movie of the festival - funny, poignant, and thrilling.