On a purely superficial level and without ever actually making an attempt to watch the film, the Canadian independent film I Declare War might be seen as tasteless at best or reprehensible at worst. A film that features 12 year olds toting guns around as they go about one of the most apocalyptically bad play dates ever might not go over as well in our post-post-school shooting climate. To merely judge this film from Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson based solely on its core gimmick and hook, though, would be unfair and deeply wrong. This is an extremely smart and clever black comedy that actually has the guts and fortitude to get inside the heart and mind of a 12 year old and all it took was to put a literal gun in the middle of a figurative fight to do it.
It’s summer and a game of capture the flag is going down in the middle of the woods. Two rival teams with sticks that they pretend are assault weapons of various kinds – which we envision in the same way they do in their minds – and paint filled balloon grenades set out in a quest for domination. Defending champion PK (Gage Munroe) is a tactical genius who idolizes Patton. He thinks methodically and carefully. He believes in the rules of a just and fair war. His plans for the afternoon were to take on his perfect match with his mates in tow, but his intellectual equal has been overthrown in a coup by Skinner (Michael Friend), an awkward young man prone to violent outbursts that thinks PK has slighted him since he found cooler friends.
Taking the axioms “Kids can be cruel” and “War is hell” and combining them, the film works because every kid on the battlefield has a distinct personality to them and they all get equal time to shine, which is great since there isn’t a weak link among them all. These are smart kids who get the satire of the film around them, leading to performances that are chilling when they need to be and hilarious and awkward like children often are. Not only is the power struggle at the heart of the game engrossing and chilling (Skinner does some things that are definitely inappropriate for young kids to see), but the subplots among the other team members add to the reality of the situation.
As for the real gun gimmick, it’s interesting to note that aside from fake gunfire – which in typical naïve and childlike fashion simply means you get wounded and can only get up after counting off aloud – the guns are the least deadly weapons at the disposal of the kids. The guns exist only to give the kids an air of sophistication in their own minds. In reality, when they lash out it becomes a full on Lord of the Flies situation. The actual violent acts in the film are mild considering how this kind of a project could have easily been exploitative, but they are effective by way of their deeply primal nature. The guns are fake, but there because the audience is meant to see this from the kid’s perspective. Those are fake. The game is fake. The world is real. The stakes for their friendships are real.
Lapeyre and Wilson have made an incredibly smart film about kids who seem like they would be perfectly likeable in a one on one setting, but can be somewhat abberant in a groupthink setting where some will emerge as powerful, misguided leaders or hopelessly frustrated followers who don’t understand or comprehend the people in charge. There aren’t any adults to be found here, but much like the guns, this story isn’t about them. It’s about being a twelve year old boy (or girl in one of the cases) and how morally ambiguous the lines between play and reality become skewed at such an age. It’s electrifying, terrifying, and undeniably entertaining to behold.