The cutesy Canadian indie I Declare War is set in the imaginations of a bunch of war-obsessed middle schoolers as they play Capture The Flag on a Sunday afternoon. Running between box elders, beeches, and willows, the kids—a dozen or so and only one a girl—see cardboard tubes as rocket launchers, slingshots as crossbows, and paint-filled balloons as grenades. Each one idealizes a different kind of warfare; one kid slathers his face in camo like a Full Metal Jacket nihilist, while another sees herself as a Hunger Games loner. (In a neat touch, one participant’s weapon is always shown to be a toy, reflecting his lack of enthusiasm about the game.) Tactics are discussed, RC-controlled drones are deployed, and enhanced interrogation techniques—including the dreaded Indian burn—are used on enemy combatants.
There’s a germ of a satire, however facile, in the idea of making children behave like movie soldiers, drawing up battle plans with markers, smoking imaginary cigarettes, and dodging make-believe explosions. However, writer/co-director Jason Lapeyre is more interested in going in the opposite direction, using war imagery as a metaphor for childhood, where small anxieties can take on life-and-death importance.
The problem, mainly, is that Lapeyre’s kids are stock types: runts, bullies, toadies, a girl with a big crush. In essence, they are kids’-movie tropes pretending to be war-movie tropes—one layer of generic material being used to cover another. Stripped of its gunfire and special effects, I Declare War becomes a conventional boyhood drama with a big lesson about how being true to your friends can be more important than winning. Its gimmick facilitates nothing aside from the sight of 12-year-olds lugging around AK-47s.
This creates some uncomfortable intersections with reality. There’s an element of self-deprecating cultural commentary to the way these Canadian kids are fixated on American wars of intervention, but folding references to real war into the make-believe conflict opens the movie upin ways that Lapeyre perhaps didn’t intend. In the context of the film, a 12-year-old with a machine gun is a fantasy; however, in the context of the real world, it is unfortunately commonplace.