Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his book Mother Night: “You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.” That famous line could serve as the lesson of Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s satirical look at human beings’ capacity for conflict, I Declare War.
A group of 12-year-old kids, mostly boys, have established hard-and-fast rules regarding the elaborate games of capture the flag that they play in the woods on a regular basis. P.K. (Gage Munroe) is the recognized master, the most successful general anybody can ever remember. The movie focuses on a dangerous campaign in which he squares off against Skinner (Michael Friend), whose obsessive need to defeat P.K. leads to several breaches in the rules, creating a dangerous situation for both the generals and the combatants caught in the cross fire.
For a picture ostensibly about armed conflict, I Declare War is consistently amusing. The co-directors, working from a script by Lapeyre, not only handle a number of amusing physical gags with aplomb, but also make sure the occasionally biting one-liners land with the proper amount of force. In addition, they’ve cast the kids in the film to perfection, finding young actors who don’t overplay the comedy or the drama. They’ll remind you of schoolmates and friends you once had.
To be clear, the film strikes a specific and original tone so that you never actually fear for the lives of these kids at any point, but there are still moments when you wonder exactly how safe they are. This is quite an achievement, since you have to believe in Skinner’s obsessive hatred of P.K. for the subtext of I Declare War to work, even though the full motivation for his antipathy toward the gifted military strategist isn’t revealed until the movie’s final act. Lapeyre and Wilson capture the naturalism of youngsters playing games and twist this reality to make subtle points about much larger issues.
Those issues take shape when you realize there’s a refreshing lack of adult supervision for the characters. In fact, there’s never even the suggestion that parents or guardians of any kind enter into this world -- this is a society that the tykes have created all on their own, and they respect the rules enough to take care of each other when one of them is hurt. The fact that grown-ups don’t matter looms larger when you consider that these kids have lived pretty much their entire lives in a post-9/11 environment where war and terrorism are a daily reality. Lapeyre and Wilson never once make this point explicitly, but upon reflection -- as funny and charming as I Declare War is -- you understand that they’ve fashioned one of the more damning portraits of how children of the 21st century see the world.
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