F-bombs drop like lead balloons. Torture is an option. And if generals do not break the rules of engagement, they bend them mighty hard. But this is no Tarantino war flick, it's a kid's movie–for anyone of an age where scenes with F-bombs, torture and nobility-myth breaking do not offend gentle sensibilities. It never fails: Every year at the Newport Beach Film Festival, I stumble upon a little or otherwise off-the-radar movie that surprises the hell out of me (in a good way). I Declare War is that film this year.
It's summer in Canada–my first clue coming from a kid who says "aboot"–and every day a group of opposing middle schoolers get together in high brush to "play Army," which is not what these youths call it but what my neighborhood friends and I called it in the San Bernardino wash during the Vietnam War years. The movie's title sequence reveals the five rules of these war games, which include how one deals with being shot and killed and how a winner is declared.
Writer Jason Lapeyre, who also shares the directing credit with Robert Wilson, packs into the picture battlefield-movie cliches dating back to Birth of a Nation: the foxhole buddies; the coward who cannot fire his weapon; the generals steeped in war history; the meatheads who enforce brutal orders; the lone wolf who appears and disappears like a ghost as he plays by his own rules; the sadist extracting secrets out of a POW; and the lass who uses her lassie ways to pit lads against one another to achieve her own ends.
The children wield water balloons, toy pistols and tree branches that only make sounds when "fired" in "kaboom!" and "rata-tat-tat-you're-dead!" kinds of ways. But what we see are grenades, handguns, AK's and bazookas and what we hear are blasts and automatic gunfire, just like what the kids are imagining. It's all very meta: out of Lapeyre's rich imagination sprang a very unique movie about the rich imaginations of children.
Parents may be surprised by how fully developed those rich imaginations are, which may be the point: to show how the images of war seen in 24-hour news cycles translate onto playgrounds, just like the evening news horrors did in San Berdoo in the Sixties. We also see how war, real or imagined, can be hell on friendships.
But that's heaviness that may play on you after leaving I Declare War. Before that, you'll be thoroughly entertained by the smart story with lines coming out of the mouths of babes such as (spoiler alerts): "Tie the chink to a tree;" "I read it in a book" (a callback to Patton); and "This is war, man, not fucking hopscotch. You want to win? There are going to be casualties."