A show of hands: Who played war games growing up? Capture the Flag was essentially an evolved hide-and-seek, with toy guns and mouthed sound effects, group play instead of an every-kid-for-himself approach, and maybe more strategy than ducking behind a neighbor's car. So there's a part of a lot of us that will instantly connect with the broad execution of I Declare War. The entire movie is a real-time afternoon battle in the woods.
The kids are, however, heavily armed. They don't inflict any real damage with them, but it's a bit shocking to see RPGs and machine guns in the hands of 12-year-olds. They're elements of the characters' imaginations, but still. Canadian filmmakers Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson are careful to balance it with a few toys here and there. And most of the blood, aside from incidental nicks kids get from traipsing through the woods, is the result of paint balloons, which explode on contact to represent kill shots.
The combatants are largely what you'd expect, both from a maturing but still mostly simplistic age group and from moviemaking norms. There's PK (Gage Munroe), the genius strategist who has never lost at war. There's Kwon (Siam Yu), PK's best friend and apologist. There are various doofuses and nerds, and then there's Skinner (Michael Friend), who approaches the war game with a little too much realism, taking prisoners and torturing them, hurling rocks, and so on. In fact, Skinner lobs a blood balloon at his own commander simply so he can take things over and battle PK head-to-head. It's a coup, PK notes, citing China in 1911 and Greece in 1967 as historical precedents.
All of this can be viewed as a serious satire, in the vein of Animal Farm or the obvious comparison, Lord of the Flies. But what is the film satirizing, exactly? While it could take a few moments or draw a couple of more comparisons for the sake of clarity, what's under the microscope appears to be an ever-more-violent culture, the current climate of fatal bullying, and a decade-long entanglement in Afghanistan and Iraq that sends kids just a handful of years older than these to fight real enemies with real guns and IEDs.
Also on display is the almost innate cruelty of children, which no matter what you think about fake weapons becoming "real" in the heat of the battle, I Declare War gets exactly right. Kids do throw rocks, though less often than hurtful insults or even manipulative emotional trickery, which is the key weapon of Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the film's only female. She uses her feminine wiles to turn the tables and turn friends against each other.
Because I Declare War doesn't create new or even two-dimensional characters, there's very little development along the way. That's fine; many of the great war movies have exactly the same problem. But there's not much internal conflict here otherwise. The personalities are strong, yes, but not terribly interesting, so you might not care who captures the flag or doesn't. Also, Lapeyre and Wilson sneak a character around the edges of the story and pipe him directly into the film's final moments, which feels forced, as if they had an ace taped to the bottom of the table this whole time.
The performances are a mixed bag, as you might expect with kids. The direction, though, is solid, from the pacing to the brief action scenes to the vivid imaginations of several key characters. It just needs a deeper script, one that lets on about its true aims, defines the stakes of the war games a little earlier in the proceedings, and delivers characters that deserve our time, not just a spot on the roster.