Review: 'I Declare War'

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Drafthouse Films

In 'I Declare War,' a pretend game of war between kids goes way too far when one over-zealous boy takes the rules into his own hands. An intense rivalry develops as PK, the general from one camp, tries to adhere to the rules and play an honorable game, while the smarmy Skinner from the opposing camp does the unthinkable and takes a prisoner, throwing the whole game into upheaval.

'I Declare War' is an inventive film that embraces the seriousness of childhood imagination, while affectionately acknowledging the lack of wisdom in adolescence. 

The opening sequence of 'I Declare War' is reassuring: this isn't a whimsical film, nor is it an over-the-top send-up of the action genre as seen through the eyes of pre-teens. Using subtle editing, directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson toggle between the reality of children carrying sticks and water balloons and their imaginary assault rifles and grenades, with the sound of helicopters passing overhead. The rules of war are simple: two generals pick their teams and their base locations (base locations cannot be changed); if you're shot, you are paralyzed until you count off 10 steamboats (like counting Mississippi); if you're hit with a grenade, you're dead and must go home; and the game is over when the general captures the opposing team's flag.

To kids like PK and Skinner, this is more than just a game, but for different reasons: PK loves to watch war movies and plan strategies, and he strictly adheres to the rules. It's this sort of obedience that has enabled him to win every game of war he's played. Skinner, on the other hand, is a kid who's kind of lost it -- after being bullied, doubted, and losing to PK again and again, Skinner is a kid with a major chip on his shoulder and something to prove; this is how the bullied become bullies. While PK takes war seriously, he also realizes that it's just a game -- when his friend Paul asks what they're doing after the war, PK says they're going back to his house to eat pizza and watch 'Patton' (again). But a kid like Skinner takes war a little too seriously. He's like the friend you play Monopoly with who gets way too antsy about what it means to land on the Free Parking space.

For Skinner, it's not even about winning anymore -- it's about beating PK, which means breaking rules, taking a prisoner, and really hurting other kids. And that may sound a bit dark, but it's not that dour at all. 'I Declare War' is respectful to its characters, taking these kids seriously while also acknowledging that they've still got a lot of room to grow. Some of the best moments in the film follow kids as they pair off on missions and have banal conversations -- Joker, for instance, really likes to play the "would you rather" game, and his questions always involve asking his friends what they'd give up their genitals for. And most of the kids seem to be succumbing to the stresses of war -- everyone is on edge and behavior/chatter that was once tolerable among friends is now an annoyance.

Lapeyre and Wilson find that magical sweet spot between youth and adulthood, where kids can be taken seriously and not satirized or mocked, giving us a film that's surprisingly straight-forward and subdued. The dialogue feels (mostly) natural, with the kids doing the majority of the heavy-lifting, and these kids are fantastic, particularly Gage Munroe as PK, who always seems a little smarter and authoritative than his peers, but Munroe never pretends to be an actual adult -- he's still a kid, but he's a really clever kid.

The film largely succeeds because its directors don't get caught up in the idea of making the imaginary world of war a literal one with set-dressing and effects. Instead, the audience is immersed in this imaginary war the same way the kids are, by accepting the reality that these kids have created. By not utilizing elaborate sets and making the fake war real, Lapeyre and Wilson keep us on the level, with one foot firmly planted in reality, the other in a nostalgic, fictional world -- the kind of world where friendships are tested during games (just as they might be during battle), where the desire to win and take revenge becomes more important than playing the game itself, and where an arbitrary game of war becomes the most important day of a young man's life.

At times funny, touching, and even a little romantic, 'I Declare War' is one of the best coming of age stories this year, neck and neck with 'The Kings of Summer.' Like that film, 'I Declare War' doesn't look down on adolescence from a patronizing perspective, but instead from a place not too far in the distance -- a place of nostalgia, where we realize that being a kid wasn't too long ago, and some part of us will always be (and always want to be) that kid in the woods, arguing over what's real and what isn't, fighting to reconcile responsibility with fun.Review Rating'I Delcare War' is now playing in select theaters and available on iTunes and OnDemand.

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