'I Declare War' Review: Childhood Conflict Emulates Adulthood In Audience Award Winner [Fantastic Fest 2012]

With a shock of blond hair, braces, and a physique that has yet to even begin thinking about filling out, PK is an unlikely general. He's a relatively tiny kid, maybe eleven or twelve years old, and the undisputed champion of War amongst kids at school. In I Declare War, PK (Gage Munroe) plays by the rules in games of capture the flag: two teams, two immovable bases, gunshots incapacitate for ten seconds, grenades "kill." A fan of the movie Patton and a student of war history, PK believes in the rules of the game, and the rules of engagement, and winning.

His game of War is the same game many of us played as children, with sticks standing in for guns, and a give and take between honor and rule-bending dictating the outcome of a fight. But in this film, the combat is rendered as real, with splashes of blood, and hands full of real pistols and automatic rifles. When the bouncy, imaginative Frost (Alex Cardillo) finds a particularly choice tree branch, we see it in its natural state for a few shots, but the next time it appears the branch has transformed into what Frost sees: an olive drab bazooka.

The "game as realism" approach of I Declare War is the hook, but the reason to stick around is the way that writer/co-director Jason Lapeyre, who directed with Robert Wilson, weaves enduring ideas about friendship, betrayal and adolescence into the film. Their movie won the audience award last night at Fantastic Fest, and it's easy to see why. The scenario transitions seamlessly from playground fluff to effective exploration of the causalities incurred as one kid follows his drive to secure victory at any cost. 

The entirety of I Declare War takes place on the battlefield as PK faces off against the chess-playing enemy general Quinn (Aidan Guiveia). But Quinn is quickly overturned by Skinner, an uppity soldier in his employ. The round-faced Skinner (Michael Friend) is like Charlie Brown grown into an '80s action villain; in a couple decades he could menace Schwarzenegger, or at least Chuck Norris. Skinner PK's best friend Kwon as hostage, and hopes to use the kid to draw the opposing leader into a face to face fight. But PK isn't so easily drawn out, and Skinner's rage leads to violence against his hostage that is more appropriate to Lord of the Flies than a Saturday afternoon game.

The terms of the game may be childish, but the intent behind it is decidedly adult. And while it seems like kids stuff at first, it isn't long before mature difficulties begin to influence the flow of battle. Jess (Mackenzie Munro), as the lone female combatant, brings budding sexual tension to the game. She's playing because she fancies deposed opposition general Quinn, but as she continues to fight in his absence she realizes that she can use other boys' interest in her to her advantage.

As the game becomes more serious, tensions arise between almost all the combatants, and Skinner goes further off the rails. Hostage Kwon (Siam Yu) gets a workout as he faces Skinner's angry impulses, but there are strangely familiar encounters between many of the kids. One of PK's footsoldiers, Joker (Spencer Howers), taunts quiet newcomer Altar Boy (Andy Reid) for getting into the game because he doesn't have friends. Joker will be Alatar Boy's best friend, he says, if only the shy kid partakes in a little corprophagia with a dog turd.

As that implies, there is never a stratification of the two teams into "good guys" and bad. Each of these kids has their own problems. Some explicit, and some effectively implied. It's easy to root against Skinner, as he's so obviously unhinged, but the conclusion of the film might even have you reconsidering that estimation. I Declare War has a very specific moral stance, but it lets the audience get the idea based on the effect of each kid's actions. Even as the concepts get heavy, Lapeyre and Wilson maintain a fleet-footed approach to putting them on screen. Like the game it depicts, I Declare War is both cute and deadly serious, with the competing tones complementing rather than undermining each other.

/Film score: 7.5 out of 10