‘The greatest ideas are the simplest’.
William Golding wrote this line in his seminal 1954 novel Lord of the Flies to describe the decision made by his protagonist to build the most successful fire. It may just as well have been the mission statement for directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson when devising this bold, shocking and often disturbing Canadian tale of two groups of children playing ‘war’. The film throws us straight into its daring concept; children act out a military conflict in the woodland near their homes and exchange blows with real weapons inflicting real injuries once battle commences. We quickly realise that the filmmakers are indulging the audience in the fantasy of what the children’s imaginations are playing out, but nevertheless this makes for uneasy viewing. The grudges are still real, as are the occasional bloodied noses and even one scene of torture I defy anyone not to wince through. This approach is deceptively simple in its premise, yet, like the finest allegorical stories, infinitely layered in meaning and political relevance. The reason often given for wars being fought is to create a better future for the children of tomorrow – it’s a fascinating notion to see the children take fate into their own hands and brave the battlefield in the face of betrayal, serious injury or even death.
In a world where no adults are visible – barely even referenced – the success or failure of the film wholly rests on the young shoulders of its cast. Here, the filmmakers are well served, with a line up of young talent that would have satisfied the likes of Rob Reiner while making Stand By Me or Richard Donner lensing up on The Goonies. A Full Metal Jacket of kudos goes to Gage Munroe for defying his ‘cute kid’ demeanor in portraying P.K. – the tough but battle-fatigued leader of his outfit, Siam Yu as cunning but vulnerable double agent Paul, Michael Friend as the ambitious and flawed bully Jamie and Mackenzie Munro as the go-between with her own agenda, Jessica. Hollywood will no doubt be making note of these performances – don’t be surprised if these guys start rocking up in the big franchises over the next few years. In this aspect I Declare War can sit proudly alongside J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 for invigorating the role of young casts in successfully carrying a feature on their own – something less commonplace since the family film heyday of the 80’s.
However, this is no family film. The screenplay could be pretty much removed from the children’s backyard, transplanted into Vietnam and placed in the hands of an adult cast with barely an alteration. The performances, visual style and score make us feel like we’re watching Platoon with pre-teens. This gives the film it’s edge but also proves to be its slight sticking point. Like Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, the most impressive set up and scenarios can be deemed moot when the audience knows they are witnessing the fantasy of the characters. Any peril or triumph depicted has a lessened impact when we know the events are not actually happening as they are being presented. However this is a minor quibble as, on the whole, I Declare War succeeds as an original, interesting and compelling piece, worthy of making pretend machine-gun noises over.
I Declare War is in cinemas 6th June.