If you have a point to make, try not to make it too succinctly in the first five minutes of your film. Such is the ace in the hole that is “I Declare War,” a crude sketch of a film that could barely withstand a short-form, but instead has been stretched to agonizing feature length by directors Robert Wilson and Jason Lapeyre. The joke (is it a joke?) is that children organize a game of Capture The Flag, or War, or whatever they are calling it, and there’s very little difference between these kids playing an imaginary game, but also adults on separate sides of a conflict. There’s also the suggestion that much of this conflict is based on what the kids have seen in war video games and movies (kids name-dropping “Call Of Duty” makes more sense than “Patton”), but, y’know, lip service.
The idea does gather a bit of traction due to the performances by a naturalistic young cast. As these youngsters skulk about in the woods, plotting strategy with makeshift weapons, their interplay offers the sort of charm absent in more tense moments, when these kids inorganically curse like social malcontents. Earlier generations may have prided themselves on arbitrary rules that adults would not play by: now, the film argues, the cues have been taken by world leaders who welsh on promises and the candid media coverage of the more questionable actions taken by misguided soldiers. Breaking all the rules may render the game irrelevant. But bending a few of them tests allegiances and fortifies bonds. Or maybe it’s just fun to make your peers flinch.
The chief gimmick of the picture is that while they fight with water balloons, sticks and rocks, we see it in their imagination, where weapons cause bloodshed, and toys land like grenades, bullet casings littering the ground. It’s interesting when the illusion wavers, and we’re uncertain if a child is actually using a real knife or a play one. Other moments are decent gags, like the kid who grabs a stick and suggests it would make a great rocket launcher, only to be toting around an actual launcher later in the picture without explanation. Unfortunately, the film is constantly cutting away to deflate its own taboo of kids with guns, peeling back the sadistic veneer to remind us these are just kids with twigs and gizmos. Had the film insisted on keeping these kids armed to the teeth in a world without adults, the satirical elements would mean much more.
Making a film like this, which is 95% conceptual, you tend to lose sight of the fact that all the ideas in the world can’t substitute for what’s being put up onscreen. And “I Declare War,” which never departs from what seems like a half-square mile in the woods, isn’t able to transcend the visual repetitiveness of its location. The cast seem mired in the same shot-reverse shot action moments, and there’s no attempt to either mimic the vocabulary of action films, or take a more whimsical, heightened approach to suggest a more fantastical children’s impression of what a shootout would look like. Basically, the approach to the violence is just to point and shoot: Wilson and Lapeyre will likely receive various other offers to direct in the future, but chances are none of them will be action films. Compare this to the similar go-for-broke style of “Son Of Rambow,” and you’ll see the diminished craft failing to capture the sensibilities of hormonal youths raging against the elements.
Furthermore, the base elements of what the viewer is left with is the idea of cruel children expressing their hostilities against each other, apple-cheeked preteens slinging curse-word insults at each other. Taken by themselves, foul words have the ability to shock and disorient, sometimes for laughs: there used to be a transgressive thrill that came from putting them in the mouths of kids. But unless later generations have become desensitized, foul language remains harsh on the ears, and it’s even rougher coming from the mouth of a kid. This isn’t an issue of morals, but headaches: hearing brats scream all day is a special kind of hell. Hearing them use these sorts of words is not pleasurable by any means. Young Mackenzie Munro plays the game’s only girl, and not coincidentally, the only non-screaming miscreant. Seeing her arc, where she learns to employ her young sexual wiles to coax men into doing her bidding without making a promise or exposing any skin at all, is a funny bit, one that finds a fresh way for a character to explore her burgeoning sexuality in a coming-of-age narrative. Perhaps in the sequel she can realize she doesn’t need to hang around these boys one second longer. [C-]