Anyone who thinks kids are just innocent lambs should watch them while they play “Call of Duty” or some other bloodthirsty video game. In “I Declare War,” Jason Lapeyre and Rob Wilson’s refreshingly analog version of this pastime, the hardware consists of toys and sticks and stones, and the software is the imagination. But imagination is what these filmmakers could use more of, as their ingenious concept doesn’t develop much beyond a gimmick.
Heavily armed 13-year-olds engage in a firefight in the woods. One is apparently killed. At first the scene bears an unsettling resemblance to the real-life child soldiers forced to fight for ruthless warlords in African civil wars, a tragic situation dramatized in the outstanding “War Witch” (2012) by Kim Nguyen. But in the next scene the assault rifles and grenades are revealed to be plastic models or homemade simulations. The kids are playing an intensified version of Capture the Flag, and the movie is playing with your mind.
The premise calls for a suspension of disbelief that allows another suspension of disbelief; in other words, the viewer has to believe in these kids in order to believe in what they are imagining. But the characters seem contrived, and the acting is in some cases as wooden as the fake weapons. Furthermore, the filmmakers don’t seem to have a firm grasp on point of view, or why some scenes should involve the fantasized real weapons and others just the crude fakes (and really, what self-respecting 13-year-old these days would settle for such crummy equipment?). So, after a promising start, “War” loses its credibility and deteriorates into clichés.
Drawing on the “Lord of the Flies” template, the forces in conflict come down to the power-hungry, sadistic, and self-loathing Skinner (Michael Friend), the irrational counterpart to the cuter and more civilized Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), whom he usurps as team leader in a rules-defying coup. The other team is headed by PK (Gage Munroe), a coldly calculating kid who has never lost a war, in part because he doesn’t let emotions and attachments interfere with winning. Adding a little variety to this mini-macho mix is a female participant, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), who coolly overturns the boys’ misogynist stereotypes by proving to be the shrewdest strategist in the bunch, but then subverts her originality by resorting to stereotype — she’s only in the game because she adores Quinn.
As expected, the imaginary game gives way to all-too-real pathology and violence. To its credit, “War” doesn’t hold back in depicting kids as being foul-mouthed, homophobic, racist, sexually confused, bullying, and potentially psychopathic. Skinner, in particular, turns into a nasty piece of work, and arouses uneasiness and revulsion until the wheels fall off and the contrivance becomes obvious. This isn’t how kids behave when their imaginations run away with them, it’s what characters do when the filmmakers run out of ideas.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.