Back in 1969, writer Sandra Scoppettone and artist Louise Fitzhugh put out a children’s book called Bang Bang You’re Dead. It’s something of a collector’s item now — so many parents and teachers loathed it that it kicked up a lot of controversy. Anyway, the book is a starkly brilliant parable about kids playing war and really hurting (though not killing) each other. The point, made none too subtly for a readership of little boys who liked to play war, was that war isn’t and shouldn’t be a game. It draws blood. I remembered the book while watching I Declare War, a bitter but paradoxically entertaining fantasia about a group of boys (and one girl) who play war out in the Canadian woods. The movie’s conceit is that we share the kids’ imaginations: when they pick up a toy gun or a branch and pretend it’s a real gun or a bazooka, that’s what we see. In visual movie language, they’re really shooting at each other, but only in their heads. No one gets killed, but a few illusions bite the dust.
Shrewdly, I Declare War almost immediately puts us on the side of P.K. (Gage Munroe) and his army. P.K. is small, blonde and tinsel-toothed, an unlikely figure to be a general, but he’s intelligent and has studied military history. He’s serious about winning war games — his base shows off all the flags he’s won. Putting us further in P.K.’s camp is his adversary, Skinner (Michael Friend), an unpleasant “spaz” who’s just out for revenge on P.K. and is willing to torture P.K.’s best friend Kwan (Siam Yu) when he takes Kwan prisoner. Therefore a variety of “soldiers” under both boys’ “command” are cannon fodder to settle an old score between two “nations.” You could read I Declare War as an allegory for just about any conflict the United States has gotten into, or any other country.
As the movie goes on, we realize something about the fair-haired P.K.: he’s a bit of a sociopath. He’s perfectly fine with sending his best friend off to be captured and possibly tortured a second time. We’ve been rooting for him because he’s smart and his enemy is emotionally volatile, but the movie ends up asking what, exactly, P.K. stands to “win” by asking his friends to sacrifice for his own glory. There’s another brain in the group, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who plays a lot of chess and has her own agenda; she’s technically on Skinner’s side, but isn’t really loyal to him. Jess’s favored weapon is a crossbow, which serves as a perhaps unintentional critique of the heroine of The Hunger Games. The movie suggests that the people best at planning out war games aren’t the best human beings. Skinner, warped by the desire to make a mark in this faux-violent context, comes to seem less like a villain than a victim.
I Declare War has enough downtime to flesh out all the characters, strongly played by a variety of young actors mostly unknown outside Canada. But it flies by anyway, animated by the complexity of the chessboard. François Truffaut famously opined that it was impossible to make an anti-war movie, since war is so innately cinematic and exciting, and indeed the battles here are crisply staged for maximum lizard-brain satisfaction. At times the movie is like Red Dawn with a conscience. Directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson (Lapeyre also wrote the script) perform a weirdly morally complicated contextual juggling act. We know it’s fake, both in and out of the film’s reality — we know the “grenades” are just balloons filled with red paint, the “guns” just wood and plastic — yet here we are, watching adolescents shooting at each other with what read visually as real bullets, and it’s fun. It’s fun in the old primate way it’s always been: the tension of the “good guys” taking cover while being shot at, the gratification of what Hannibal Smith called a plan coming together.
But it’s also not fun, and while nothing much is actually hurt here aside from some feelings, those feelings matter to us because the kids do. As you may have guessed, this is a story, like Lord of the Flies and Stand by Me, that involves kids but is meant more for adults. The language, appropriately enough, is pretty salty. Also like those stories, though, I Declare War is thematically appropriate for pre-teens, who use that language anyway, and who might best benefit from its message. If it were a young-adult book, it’d be stupidly challenged by offended parents all over the country. It’d face the same fear and loathing that greeted that Vietnam-era relic Bang Bang You’re Dead. Why do some authority figures not want children to know about the painful, unglamorous realities of war? Or have I just answered my own question?