IN the guise of a preacher, comedian David Steinberg once delivered a comedy sermon that ended with an inspirational story of witnessing children of various races and ethnicities banding together... to beat an old man to a pulp.
The punchline: "Now if these little children could learn to play together..."
A similar thread of dark humour and juvie violence cuts through the Canadian film I Declare War, in which an assortment of culturally diverse kids about 13 years of age are playing a war game, Capture the Flag, in a bucolic forest. They are armed with sticks instead of guns and water balloons instead of grenades. But even if the firepower is more imagined than real, the conflict takes on queasy overtones of reality when the war, predictably, starts to get out of hand.
The general of one group is P.K. (Gage Munro). He may not look impressive with his diminutive stature and his braces. But he is a formidable tactician, and he has never lost a game. His attitude is worthy of his hero, George Patton. ("This is war, man, not f -- hopscotch.")
His rival, Quinn (Aidan Gouveia), is looking to break P.K.'s winning streak with the aid of an admirer, Jess (Mackenzie Munro), the only girl in the game, and the only participant whose fantasies aren't of a violent nature.
Too bad for Quinn, he has an aggressive underling named Skinner (Michael Friend) who stages a coup. Skinner isn't simply out to win for the strategic joy. For him, winning is personal. And his passion is such that he is not above torturing their hostage, Kwon (Siam Yu), because he happens to be P.K.'s best friend. (As Skinner calls out his instructions -- "Indian burn! Charley horse!" -- one is reminded how "enhanced interrogation" is a skill learned early.)
At times, Lapeyre's script resembles a war movie with various characters taking on the characteristics of genre stereotypes: the religious guy, the joker, the silent warrior.
But the film doesn't really take the expected route of Lord of the Flies-style atavism in which the kids descend into savagery. The movie makes a bolder gambit of suggesting this is war in microcosm. The players offer up a pageant of jealousy, narcissism and sheer brutality. The character of Kwon is particularly poignant as he faces the unpleasant reality that his best friend isn't above sacrificing him if it means winning the war. Moments like this have a suggestion of timelessness about them.
In other hands, this premise might have led to some kind of juvenile adventure à la The Goonies. But Lapeyre and Wilson aspire to something more resonant, along the lines of René Clément's 1952 film Forbidden Games, in which the fanciful games of a pair of children in postwar France take on the qualities of their bitter reality.
I Declare War may lack that film's artistry, but its ambitions are high and its implications are thought-provoking.
Excerpts of reviews of I Declare War:
The picture disturbs more than it amuses, but the overall effect is ultimately as scattershot as the ammo.
-- Peter Howell, Toronto Star
It's no small feat for the audacity of I Declare War's premise -- presenting an afterschool game of war in a way that looks and feels as real to viewers as it does to the youngsters in the thick of it -- to be matched by the cunning of its execution.
-- Jason Anderson, The Grid
A sometimes chilling, heavy-headed allegory about kids and conflict, and sometimes an amusing send-up of war movie clichés.
-- Roger Moore, Movie Nation