I Declare War focuses in on a group of 12-year-olds who are playing ‘Capture the Flag’ in the local woods, as their imaginations – and insecurities – get the better of them. This Canadian indie production is a charming, but also disquieting film that sees a child’s game develop into a dark test of loyalty and limits.
Writer and director Jason Lapeyre admits to being an army brat and that’s clearly reflected in the Patton-obsessed, win-at-all-costs PK (Gage Monroe), whose intelligence and fervour twists the motives of all concerned in the so-called game. Working with what seems to be a minuscule budget and young actors of varying experience, I Declare War exceeds expectations and is an infectious and irrepressible adventure.
It’s made with a real appreciation of war movie tropes (surprise attacks, double crosses, gritty dialogue about ‘the first real enemy I’ve ever faced’) and makes fine use of a lively score. It’s also inventive (note the squibs) and – for the most part – chipper, with some nice laughs amid the growing tension. Quite rightly, Lapeyre’s characters are painted in shades of grey. There’s a nod to genre cliché with a burgeoning romance and a young recruit who dreams of travelling after the ‘conflict’ but much of the action plays out with a thoughtful subtext on the capacity for manipulation and deceit within even the youngest of humans.
Audience members reminiscing on their own childhoods will hope they weren’t as bad as the worst of the characters here, while parents with kids nearing the age of wanting to play at war will likely suffer a panic attack. Lapeyre’s central point in this accomplished, tense effort seems to be that we shouldn’t forget children can be bastards with the capacity for evil that will hopefully be distilled by adulthood, but might remain unfiltered and beget later life criminality.
Though undoubtedly inspired by the likes of The Goonies, Lost Boys and Stand By Me – I Declare War remains unique of its own right, mostly down to the tone and Lapeyre’s narrative choices. In the meantime, while we know the well-rendered gunfire isn’t real, we’re still unnerved by the very real damage the kids could do with knives. And so, what’s intended as a realistic looks at the lengths one goes to win or regain friendship becomes an often-uncomfortable test of nerves.
There are nimble bursts of fantasy and comedy but as the ‘invented’ stakes – let’s not forget it’s a game of make-believe – are raised, you find yourself wishing for a return to the childlike brio of the opening third. Fortunately, the satisfying and full-blooded – not literally – climax rounds off a compact, diverting film with a captivating tone and some excellent sequences.