Regulars to this blog (if they even exist) will note my predilection towards films depicting kids that kill. Be it Battle Royale or Who Can Kill A Child?, I seemingly can’t get enough, so without wishing a a psychoanalyst upon me, it meant when tiny Canadian indie flick I Declare War appeared on my radar, my interest was certainly piqued, and a recent UK release was most welcome.
With a cast exclusively comprised of actors for whom having reached double figures is still kind of a big deal, two groups of kids pitch battle in the great outdoors, with sticks and twigs as firearms and water balloons as decisive ‘blood grenades’. What turns a simple childhood game into something different is that the film-makers give life to their imagination, arming them with ‘real’ guns, ‘real’ ammunition and ‘real’ explosives.
We’ve all waged make-believe warfare, long summers spent in the woods recreating whatever ridiculous action movies we recorded off late night telly without parental guidance (in that sense, this is something of a distant cousin to Son of Rambow). So there is something thrilling about the action sequences in I Declare War, which are surprisingly effective and exciting. But it is also inherently amusing. The kids fit comfortably into war movie archetypes – the joker, the religious nervy one, the ruthless general, the mute at one with nature, etc. They are suitably obnoxious: foul-mouthed, violent and cruel, so a fairly accurate portrayal of kids being kids. It’s surprisingly successful in being both a parody and fine example of war on film.
Yet, it also understands there is something unsettling about all this young unfettered bloodlust. As one might expect, it can be fairly on the nose with its messages – war is pointless, nobody wins, military powers behave like squabbling tykes, yadda yadda yadda. However, its frequent scenes of kids with guns, intentionally or not evoking images of child soldiers and school shootings may be little too close for comfort for some – personally, I didn’t give it much thought, and nor do I think film-makers Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson specifically set out for simple shock tactics. Better handled is how through the prism of conflict some pretty heavy emotional truths hit home, the kind that feel particularly brutal in childhood. Friendships are tested to breaking point, cliques are torn apart, bullying both physical and mental come to the fore – it’s tough being a kid some times, and I Declare War doesn’t shy from it.
It helps that there are some pretty good performances amongst the cast, some admittedly more so than others, but as PK, Gage Munroe is a force to be reckoned with – a pipsqueak with braces on the outside, but a cold heart and steely tactical brain inside. And Michael Friend as Skinner and Siam Yu as Kwon do well selling the tension of their scenes as captor and captive. But other performers are not so well handled, as much down to inexperience as ideas that perhaps looked better on the page and weren’t pulled off effectively in the finished product. The blurring of reality and fiction works well with the gunplay, but one character’s imaginary superpowers feel disconnected from the rest of the film, while a subplot with the only female character and her lovey-dovey daydreaming is a fumbled ball.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to admire about I Declare War – it is ambitious and fufils the potential of its premise, even if when it extends its reach, it comes up short.