[This is a re-post of my review from Fantastic Fest 2012. I Declare War opens today in limited release.]
Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson‘s I Declare War is riddled with glaring, grating flaws. The performances from the young actors are inconsistent. The cinematography and effects look cheap. Character arcs and plotlines lose their energy and focus. And yet I Declare War is incredibly charming. It’s fun watching kids be kids in a game adults have become too self-conscious to play. It has the vibe of a big, backyard movie that kids would make with their friends if they had a little more money and time. The picture also makes the worthwhile argument that coming-of-age means betrayal and jealousy, and that the kids games are about to vanish.
PK (Gage Munroe) and his friends are in the middle of a game of capture the flag. If you’re hit with fake bullets, you’re down for ten seconds; if you’re hit with a blood balloon, you have to go home. The objective is to have the team’s general capture the flag of the opposing team, and bring it back to base. It’s a game most people will recognize, but it’s the personal struggles within that make it more than capture-the-flag. Friendships are tested, jealousies are ignited, and betrayal is the order of the day. I Declare War isn’t about the logistics of the game, but the relationships in between. The sadistic Skinner (Michael Friend) is torturing PK’s friend and teammate Kwon (Siam Yu); Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the only girl in the game, daydreams about Quinn (Aidan Gouveia). Joker (Spencer Howes) makes life miserable for his shy, religious teammate Wesley (Andy Reid).
These various plotlines all start out with plenty of energy, and it’s enough to hook us into the rest of the movie as we want to see how these relationships will change and grow. However, as the film progresses, Lapeyre and Wilson have a difficult time with the pacing and figuring out a way to develop the relationships in any meaningful way. The story starts to feel flabby when the film starts spending time on the dull friendship between teammates Sikorski (Dyson Fyke) and the hyperactive (Alex Cardillo) [Note: I re-watched the film a couple weeks ago, and this relationship worked much better for me on a second viewing]. Furthermore, whenever the movie gets wrapped up in the war, it lacks tension because the war isn’t really the point of the film.
Lapeyre and Wilson seem uncertain on how to balance the imaginations of their characters with the reality of the situation. Sticks can transform into bazookas, and Joker imagines he can shoot laser beams from his eyes. But why does the imagination stop there? Why doesn’t the entire forest transform into a battlefield? Obviously, it’s because of the low-budget of the production, but the reliance on pretending to give kids actual guns is a shock value that wears off quickly, and lacks the follow through to have any deeper meaning.
Where the movie finds its strong subtext isn’t in what the kids imagine, but how they behave towards each other. The most powerful weapon in the movie isn’t the fake guns or the blood balloons. It’s betrayal. All of the characters are on the cusp of moving from childhood to cynical adolescence. We’re watching what will likely be the last game for these kids because soon they’ll think capture-the-flag is too stupid, and they’ll have to face the tangible drama of dealing with their peers rather than the imagined drama of fighting in a fake war. The production, while cheap, retains its charm partially because of the melancholy that hangs over the game.
This kind of movie puts a huge weight on its young actors (there are no adults in the film), and most of them are crushed under the burden. It’s tough for young actors to be natural and still have to read from a script (sometimes it’s better to give them a situation and then tell them use their imaginations). Skinner is perhaps the saddest role in the movie, but Friend absolutely botches it. He’s simply trying too hard, and since he’s always going over the top, he doesn’t fit in to his simple surroundings. His co-actors are slightly better, but the only major standout is Reid, who plays Wesley with the genuine shyness of someone who’s trying to make friends with his indifferent or, in the case of Joker, mean-spirited teammates.
Perhaps “despite” isn’t the right for I Declare War‘s faults. They add coloring to this world, and while they hurt the movie in some respects, they also give it a distinct flavor that makes the fight feel authentic, which is crucial to making the characters’ emotions feel real. If we look back at our childhoods, we can probably find a similar time where our joy of playing a game somehow faded simply by virtue of aging. We may not be able to pinpoint the exact moment where we had to grow up and act immature in a different way (the selfishness of being a teenager), but it was there. By tapping into that vague moment, I Declare War wins us over by helping us to remember a simpler time when things stopped being simple.