I Declare War review

There are only four rules in ‘War,’ or at least this particular war.

1. The generals pick teams and a base. You cannot move base.

2. When you are shot you are paralysed until you count off ten steamboats.

3. When you are hit with a grenade you are dead. Go home.

4. You win when your general captures the other team’s flag.

The warriors following these rules are a group of youngsters playing in the woods and they’re taking their game of capture the flag very seriously. Their firearms are sticks, imagined into assault rifles and sawn-off shotguns, and the grenades that might seal a warrior’s fate are water balloons filled with red paint.

Co-directors Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre have made the bold choice to show I Declare War‘s imagined weapons on screen as though real. The potential for this imagery to upset is handled well, with the filmmakers taking care to remind the audience that they’re watching kids at play, that the guns are just figments. The foul mouthing and unpleasant manipulations are, on the other hand, very real indeed.

But overall, I Declare War is so incredibly sweet and honest about childhood that it would be terrible to see the usual newspapers ‘take a stance’ and manufacture one of the usual controversies.

What makes this film so extraordinary is how effective the artifice is and how easy it is to accept the fantasy and invest in the stakes of the game. The kids may be playing at war but their emotions, allegiances and infighting are all real.

The leader of one army is the Patton-worshipping PK (Gage Munroe), a blonde haired kid with a mouthful of braces and an obsession with military history. The opposition are headed by Skinner (Michael Friend), something of a Colonel Kurtz type who carries out a coup d’etat, seizing control of his team and ruling with an iron fist.

Skinner is angry and ruthless, even resorting to torturing the somewhat meek Kwon, a close friend and confidant of PK (Siam Yu). The relationship between PK and Kwon is thoroughly tested by the war that they are fighting.

There’s only one female player in this game but Jess (Mackenzie Munro), is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole film. She has a crush on the boy that was overthrown in Skinner’s coup, but her motives aren’t so plain and there’s enjoyment to be had trying to unpack them as the film goes on.

I Declare War may bring to mind obvious comparisons with Lord of the Flies, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games but it’s a very different beast. I thought more of the combined brutality and camaraderie in Sam Fuller’s war pictures, and the honesty of pictures such as Stand By Me or The Kings of Summer.

The Canadian directors also slip in a couple of references to American military imperialism, with both torture and drones coming up for discussion. The filmmakers clearly looked beyond their simple high concept and wanted to touch on a variety of themes, but its the relationships that are the heart of the film, and it’s staying true to those that ensures it works so well.