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I Declare War

2013 | 94 min | R | 2.39:1

I Declare War


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Theatrical release date

 30 August, 2013
 09 May, 2014

Country of origin




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I Declare War Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 29, 2013

While perhaps not a common pastime, I’m sure most children have experienced the fantasy of playing make-believe war. With the rules of engagement clearly identified, the event largely consists of combatants using the honor code to successfully pull off the imagery and intensity of combat, all in good fun. “I Declare War” advances this dark imagination, evoking real-world aggression with average suburban kids, mirroring the pains of the battlefield with a cast of pre-teens, turning their afternoon adventure into a bitter battle of repressed emotions and advanced stratagem. It’s a film about children but not for children, making it one of the more fascinating pictures of the year.

Within the woods, a group of children have gathered to play their weekly game of war. The rules are few but important, keeping a sense of fair play to the role playing, while weaponry is strictly the homemade kind, imagined as real steel by the participants. Armed with guns and water balloon grenades, two teams battle to capture their opponent’s flag, with P.K. (Gage Munroe), a general raised on viewings of “Patton,” using wits to surprise his foe, trying to figure out a victorious way to retrieve prized soldier Kwon (Siam Yu) from enemy hold. Skinner (Michael Friend) has taken control of the rival squad, consumed with torturing Kwon and defeating P.K., with his anger issues rooted in humiliations that’ve occurred off the front line. Also in the mix is Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the lone female of the group, working to impress a fallen general, and Joker (Spencer Howes), a troubled kid pressuring newcomer Wesley (Andy Reid) to shed his innocent demeanor.

“I Declare War” is a deceptive movie, introducing the audience to a group of fresh faced pre-teens romping around a forest pretending to be soldiers in service. However, this is no average afternoon, but authentic combat envisioned by children. Toy weapons and sticks are transformed into real guns, while water balloons are considered explosive grenades, put into the hands of kids who take the game of Capture the Flag with the utmost seriousness. The rules are simple: the fallen are allowed a count of ten steamboats when shot before returning to battle, and a grenade hit is an automatic out -- the soaked must return home. I Declare War” patterns itself off the great war films with a Vietnam tilt (textures of “Lord of the Flies” are also present), peeling away layers of innocence to reveal a swarm of youngsters with something to prove, treating the get-together as therapy.

Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson are quite brave in their execution of the feature. This isn’t a Disney production. The war depicted here is raw, with bullets flying, swearing, and an escalation of antagonism from Skinner, who’s abusing his position of power to exact revenge for a lost friendship with Kwon, unable to share his feelings outside the game. Obviously, lives aren’t actually taken, yet “I Declare War” treats the skirmish with authenticity, matching the creativity and determination of the soldiers, many of whom are lost in the fantasy, including P.K. and his grand design of leadership, and Joker, who imagines the ability to destroy his enemy with red lasers emitting from his eyes. The bullying is real, as are manipulations, finding Jess using her not-so-secret weapon of femininity to stun her pre-adolescent foe. It’s a tangle of realism set loose inside an arena of unreality, and it’s utterly compelling drama, never slipping into a deflating self-awareness. As far as the movie is concerned, these characters are experiencing the real deal, only breaking the illusion when the intensity of the day causes confusion.

The young performances are truly the star of the show, with each actor contributing meaningful work that either digs into worrisome psychological terrain or plays up war film archetypes. There’s particularly strong work from Friend as the rampaging Skinner, a boy so wounded by perceived mistreatment, he abuses the fantasy of the game. Munroe also reveals credible intelligence as P.K., with the tiny general’s whirring mind allowing the screenplay to explore sequences of search and rescue that add greatly to the viewing experience. And Munro brings an unsettling awareness to Jess, with the power of the almighty crush motivating her combat shock, growing aware of her power over boys. There’s a natural quality to the picture that’s masterfully managed by the directors, extracting pitch-perfect turns from a largely unseasoned cast.

“I Declare War” might come off as an effort for all ages, especially with its young cast, but it’s an adult picture. The characters lose themselves in their roles, resulting in incidents of racism and violence that juvenile audiences might not be able to process in full. This dedication to the verisimilitude of warfare defines the viewing experience, sustaining the originality and integrity of “I Declare War,” making it a special picture, a fascinating character study, and a vivid depiction of child’s play as viewed through the unpolished prism of a pre-teen’s impressionable imagination.

Starring: Siam Yu, Gage Munroe, Michael Friend
Directors: Jason Lapeyre, Robert Wilson

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