Film Review: I Declare War

Humor and hurt feelings collide in an entertaining teen adventure.

Alternatingly delightful and troubling, the woods-set I Declare War will sound like Lord of the Flies to some, given its leaders-and-followers scenario and overtones of cruelty. In reality, this kids-play-war film has more in common with a story like Stand by Me—one concerned with kids as kids, not allegories, and with seeing how intense everyday emotions can get before they're dangerous. Co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson balance humor and fun with a little fear in a thoroughly accessible way; with the right attention, commercial prospects are good.

A dozen 13-year-olds gather almost daily to play Capture the Flag, and all are accustomed to the winner being PK (Gage Monroe, who holds the screen like a general)—a kid whose braces and shaggy hair belie an obsession with military history, who commands his team with textbook stratagems and quotes from Napoleon. (When a friend presents a stupid "Would you rather..." hypothetical fantasy, PK deflates him with a plan that would let him have it both ways.)

Things are different today, though, with strong opponent Quinn (Aidan Gouveia) leading the other side and loose cannon Skinner (Michael Friend) complicating things further. When the latter stages a coup, then takes PK's best friend Kwon (Siam Yu) hostage, PK winds up having to weigh his real-world friendships against the pride he takes in being the game's perpetual winner. Making things stranger for just about everyone but PK is the presence of a girl in the game—Mackenzie Munro's Jess, who's smitten with Quinn but doesn't mind using her wiles on others.

Though the kids carry sticks for weapons, Lapeyre and Wilson only occasionally show them. Usually those sticks appear onscreen as fully realistic rifles, their gunfire calamitous among the trees. The effect is to make us take all this playacting as seriously as the participants do, and to raise the emotional stakes, allowing us to appreciate the film's betrayals as if we were more familiar than we are with the bonds being broken.

The faux-danger also oddly raises the stakes when Skinner threatens Kwon with actual bodily harm. Something's going on that we don't quite understand, but the violent conceit makes it feel more plausible that something really horrible could happen today. That fear is cut throughout with the script's persistent wit, embodied especially well by Munro, as the junior-high femme fatale, and Alex Cardillo, who as Frost is a bundle of goofy enthusiasm.
The Hollywood Reporter