In the tradition of "Stand by Me" and "Lord of the Flies" comes a poignant dark comedy that puts a timely spotlight on the games kids play and the consequences of seemingly innocent actions when fun gives way to danger.
Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson co-directed from a Lapeyre script. Wilson is an accomplished producer -- this is his second feature directorial effort (he serves as a producer on this as well). This is Lapeyre's followup to his first narrative feature "Cold Blooded." The movie had debuted as a work-in-progress print at ActionFest in North Carolina in April, where it took home the jury prizes for Best Film and Best Screenplay. It went on to a triumphant premiere at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. It took top honors here in Texas, winning the Fantastic Fest Audience Award.
The premise of "I Declare War" is deceptively simple -- a group of kids gets together on a regular basis to play war games in the woods, challenging each other in mock battle with harmless paintballs and tree branch bazookas. We used to play cowboys and Indians with water guns and toy pistols. Some of us graduated to Civil War reenactments. We turned out okay. So when these youngsters choose to head out into the forest and get a good physical workout trying to steal the opponents' flag from their home base, while most of their peers are engrossed in role-playing games on their computers, this looks like a marvelously healthy alternative.
But boys will be boys, as they say (okay, there is one girl), and the situation inevitably turns sour. Rivalries turn real as jealousy, love, and loss come to the fore, and some players take the game one menacing step further. The timely topic of bullying suddenly rears its ugly head as we see its root causes on display before having the chance to look away. As in 2004's "Mean Creek," one of my all-time favorite indies, innocent joy turns to potential tragedy as the line between fantasy and reality blurs both on screen, for the viewer, as well as in the minds of the youngsters.
What the kids begin to see in their minds -- a stick of wood is suddenly a rifle, a paintball is a real grenade -- is reflected in the film itself. This is just one of the many masterful strokes that sets "I Declare War" apart from its brethren and makes it such a powerful cinematic experience in its contribution to a rich cinematic tradition, the classic morality play writ large when the protagonists are vulnerable adolescents.
This character-driven study on the limits to which a man/boy can be pushed rests on the abilities of this age-consistent ensemble cast to make these characters believable. Without that the narrative would fall apart like an army facing mutiny. Standouts include Gage Munroe as PK and Michael Friend as Skinner. Both turn in frighteningly genuine performances that may draw a tear or two. All team members are on somewhat equal footing in significant roles with few in background support. Kudos must go out to Siam Yu, Aidan Gouveia, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo, Dyson Fyke, Spencer Howes, Andy Reid, Kolton Stewart, Richard Nguyen, Eric Hanson, and Alex Wall. Another bold choice -- there are no adults in this tightly-focused production.
The movie's authenticity also stems from its unscripted feel, as the youngsters were encouraged to insert dialogue using their own teenage vernacular and improvise where it was agreed the young actors would best know how to behave in a certain situation. The language is raw, to be sure, not unlike my 2012 SXSW Film Festival favorite "Funeral Kings," with F-bombs galore and enough obscenities to make their parents blush. But it always effectively serves the plot and is never gratuitous or overtly offensive.
Production values are well above the typical indie or foreign film. The entire picture was shot in one exterior location, a seemingly simple task made much more difficult by the limited hours allowed for underage actors and inability to avoid shadows no matter how well lit. Still, it always appears to be magic hour with the kids awash with the stunning beauty of nature, bathed in sunlight, their angelic innocence filling the screen.
Composers Eric Cadesky and Nick Dyer have crafted an intricate score that's surprisingly heavy, serving as a perfect dramatic counterpoint to the child's play in the great outdoors. The action dictates the viewer's emotions, not the clichéd tugging of heartstrings with violins and cellos, and that's as it should be.
The camera-work is virtually all Steadicam, affording cinematographer Ray Dumas the ability to maintain fluid motion throughout, despite the natural obstacles inherent in shooting on a forest floor. The combatants often move with the frame and not through it, as though we were running right alongside them. These tracking shots bring the viewer right into the action, allowing us to feel as if we're part of the game. But we're playing both sides -- but they don't know that -- and that's part of the fun of I Declare War. Spies abound, and you're one.
"I Declare War" also works because we've all been there, more or less -- every audience member will see a bit of their golden youth in one or more of these kids, for better or worse. If painful it can be cathartic. If pleasant it's sweetly evocative of a time past to which many wish we could return.