March 30, 2013

I DECLARE WAR Shows The Cruelty Of War Through The Cruelty Of Childhood

"You're no fun to play with."
Holy shit guys, this movie is for real.

The hook is simple: a group of kids spend the afternoon playing war out in the local woods.  While in reality they're carrying sticks for guns, we see the action play out the way they imagine themselves, complete with automatic weapons and explosions.  There's a great animated sequence at the beginning that quickly explains the rules: if you get shot, you must stay motionless until you count out ten steamboats.  You get hit with a grenade (a balloon filled with red paint), then you're dead and you go home.  Each team has an immovable base with a flag and the first general to get the other team's flag wins.  The film executes both sides of it narrative with deft precision; it's an insightful look at childhood friendship and romance while also poignantly examining the motivations and methods of warfare.  By the end, I could hear the words of the W.O.P.R. computer echoing in my head - "The only winning move it not to play."

PK is the reigning champ among the neighborhood generals.  He's never lost a war because he takes the game very seriously, studying historical campaigns and tactics in his free time.  (His favorite movie is Patton.)  This war is destined to play out differently, although not for the reason he thinks.  His opposing general, Quinn, is not only one of the smartest kids in the neighborhood, he's someone who actually understands strategy.  In the past PK has always been able to outsmart his opponent, but not this time.  This is the most important war he's ever fought and he knows it.  However, unbeknownst to PK, Quinn is soon ousted in a coup led by Skinner, a vaguely unstable kid who has a serious bone to pick with PK and isn't above breaking all the rules and inflicting actual physical pain in order to win.

The kids are universally great, each typifying not only a recognizable type of neighborhood kid, but also a stock war movie character, exemplified by awesome names like Joker, Frost and Sikorski.  Each gets their own moment to shine, both as soldiers and as kids trying to wrap their heads around the world around them.  Joker is a perfect example of this duality, constantly asking his fellow soldiers bizarre hypotheticals revolving around their dicks and imagining himself with Cyclops-style eye beams he uses to explode squirrels.  He's both masculine and immature, aside from being terrifically funny.  There's one girl in the group named Jess who, like most girls, is more emotionally developed than most of the boys around her.  She has a big crush on Quinn, so even after he's sent home she's determined to win the game to prove her love.  She uses any means available to her, often outsmarting her opponents or even using her "feminine wiles" to mess with the boys' heads.  ("I have killing techniques.")  Jess rocks, and even though she's on Skinner's army and PK is clearly our hero, you still find yourself rooting for her.  It helps that she has a few scenes where she imagines herself talking to Quinn about living in Paris that are downright adorable.  The only character I felt was sort of left hanging was Altarboy, a quiet kid with no real friends and no killer instinct  I kept waiting for him to get a winning moment, whether that be making a clutch kill, beating the enemy without needing to resort to violence, or just emerging from the fight with a true friend.  None of those things ever really happen, and as he's left alone at the base and never actually killed, the Altarboy literally feels forgotten.

Skinner is an outstanding antagonist, wounded and vengeful with just the right mix of sympathy and sadism.  He wants to destroy PK and he'll do whatever it takes, including throwing away all of the rules of the game.  It's a lovely demonstration of the true nature of war, where the only imperative is to destroy your enemy by any means necessary.  That includes the prolonged torture of PK's best friend Kwon, who's taken prisoner, tied to a tree and crushed under a board with heavy rocks.  The move throws PK for a loop, turning the game personal for a general who's become very clinical and detached about his combat strategy.  Kwon demonstrates absolute loyalty to PK because they're best friends, but eventually he suspects that his loyalty might be misplaced and that PK would sacrifice their friendship just to notch another victory.  Kwon might not be wrong, but there's no malice on PK's part.  Instead it simply stems from an immature understanding of real warfare.  That understanding is reinforced by the visual interpretation of violence, namely that gunshots leave no mark on the boys, and the only "blood" is the red paint of the grenade balloons.

The action, both real and imagined, is all really well staged.  I saw the movie as part of the 15th Annual Boston Underground Film Festival, so I was fortunate enough to participate in a Q&A with one of the directors and a producer after the screening.  Apparently all the kids underwent formal weapons training from the Canadian equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team.  (The film is fantastically Canadian, with Skinner at one point asking Kwon, "That hurts, eh?")  That training shows in their movements and gives the combat sequences a wonderful sense of authenticity, to the point that you often forget that these are actually just kids running around with sticks.  As great as the war stuff is, the director said that their primary goal was to make a movie that captures the experience of being twelve or thirteen and trying to get a proper handle on love and friendship.  In that regard they've succeeded fabulously, perfectly capturing what a coming of age tale is all about; the simplest of things feel monumentally important and mimicry often belies true understanding.

I Declare War is not only heartfelt and genuine, but also hilarious and endlessly quotable.  (I had a huge debate on what line to quote at the top.  My favorites include, "You can't stop war for juice," and "This is war, not fucking hopscotch!")  Drafthouse Films is distributing the movie, which should make its way into theaters later this summer.  I suspect it won't be a terrifically wide release, but trust me when I say that it'll be worth your time to seek it out.

This is another big win for Drafthouse and I can't wait to see it again.

Title: I Declare War
Directors: Jason Lapeyre, Robert Wilson
Starring: Siam Yu, Gage Monroe, Michael Friend, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Brattle Theater, Boston Underground Film Festival

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