We all played a variety of crazy games as children. Regardless of your gender, you still played games that required a massive amount of imagination. I distinctively remember playing war with my group of friends. We would run around on the mountainside acting like we were on missions and whatnot. This imagination is rarely explored in Hollywood representations of childhood. In fact, most kids on screen come across as little adults. They aren't generally don't act like kids. It takes special kinds of writers and directors to convey genuine youth in its rawest form. Writer/director Jason Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson will finally be able to impress domestic audiences on the big screen on August 30th. With Drafthouse Films distributing, I Declare War is more than a flick about childhood and fun, as it goes quite a bit deeper than that.
A group of 12-year-olds engage in a game of war. While they aren't armed with anything more than sticks and rocks, their imagination transforms them into guns and grenades. The youthful innocence of the game gradually takes on a different tone as the quest for victory pushes the boundaries of friendship. As the lines between make-believe and reality begin to blur, these would-be warriors get a searing glimpse of humanity's dark side. They learn that this adventure takes them far beyond the rules of the game and into an imaginary world where fantasy combat clashes with the real world. The stakes are much higher than a simple game of "capture the flag."
Once the film begins, it doesn't take any time to allow its audiences to get adjusted. We're placed right in the middle of an ongoing game between two groups of kids. PK (Gage Munroe) is known for his winning streak, but his team is starting to second guess a lot of his commands. Quinn (Aidan Gouveia) controls the other team, but each individual has his or her own motives. Some are hungry for power, while others desire love. What starts as a fun game quickly turns into a much more serious and dark plot. As PK points out, a lot of the situations that occur are similar to occurrences that have taken place during the real wars that have taken place. While there are a few clear references to wars and big-name action flicks, they aren't ever overwhelming. This could have easily swallowed the original content of the feature, but the filmmakers have ensured that it's simply used as an enhancer. There's plenty of unique material here. While Lapeyre's screenplay can be rather dark at times, it doesn't forget about who the characters are. Some comedy is sprinkled throughout the picture. The majority of it works extremely well, as it remembers that these are still children. Even though they're constantly wandering into the imaginary world, they're still rooted in reality.
Viewers can talk for a long time about the characters and how the script makes some references to real-life wars. However, the primary themes include friendship, guilt, and self-worth. Winning this war is very important for both PK's team and his enemy's. A crucial question is, how far are they willing to go in order to win? From a kid's perspective, playing war is supposed to be a fun venture filled with outdoor excitement. I Declare War doesn't forget to have a good time along the way, as it's still incredibly entertaining. However, it offers a different point-of-view than we're used to having. We're seeing the events play out as if we were their age, but from the perspective of an adult. While we aren't given a lot of background information on these characters, we learn a lot about them through the characteristics that are portrayed throughout the film. Lapeyre and Wilson have established some of the more developed kid roles in quite some time.
The first act is quite strong, but the second act is a bit rocky. It starts with some truly amusing content, but it later begins to lose a little bit of its consistency once it starts to focus on the opposing team. Fortunately, it picks itself back up towards the final act. Despite the lack of evenness, the ending makes it all worth it. Don't expect a pure action flick out of this, since it isn't a straight-up action movie. It never becomes overly-sentimental, as the drama feels genuine. This is when the connections are truly made with the themes. Once the credits start rolling, it leaves viewers with quite a bit to think about and discuss with others. This isn't a political drama, but it speaks commentary on issues that are important for all generations.
Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson have taken on the difficult feat of working with child actors. This usually requires completely different techniques than it would to work with adults. However, they have succeeded in obtaining solid performances. Gage Munroe is convincing as PK. There's always a leader of the group, and he displays this role extremely well. Siam Yu is fitting in the role of Kwon, as he represents the loyal best friend. Michael Friend has his moments when he's a bit rough around the edges, but he does an overall solid job as Skinner. Sometimes he overacts, but he does an excellent job through the final act. I tip my hat to the filmmakers and their cast.
I Declare War isn't an action blockbuster, but it still looks great. There are a variety of color transitions throughout the running time. This represents the emotional state in which the character are in. It's colorful and bright in some scenes, yet colorless and drained in others. The filmmakers have done an excellent job in bringing this imaginary war to life with some strong special effects. Even though it isn't on a very large scale, the gun battles are more engaging than those you'd expect to see from a big-budget flick. The sound design doesn't do anything special, but the dialogue is always clear and it becomes relatively aggressive when it needs to.
There's something to be said about the fact that I Declare War manages to be incredibly captivating, despite the lack of real weapons. While the war itself isn't real, there are several metaphorical ones taking place in between these characters. Writer/director Jason Lapeyre and co-director Robert Wilson have impressed me with their ability to bring such imagination to fruition, especially with having a cast entirely composed of kids. The concept is unique, entertaining, and it has powerful themes to back it all up. This is surely a breath of fresh air among typical Hollywood flicks. Instead of nuancing our childhood games, I Declare War brings us back to those days and makes us a part of it, despite our current age. Recommended.