War is H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks
When I was 6 years old, a classmate convinced me that girls got pregnant when guys peed in their mouths. Only about 20 years later did it become clear exactly how he came to that conclusion: he somehow caught a glimpse of some porno involving a blowjob, knew that it was somehow related to sex and that sex led to babies, but didn’t know that the penis could do anything other than pee. His 6-year-old brain then met the adult concepts he just encountered halfway, and in doing so missed the point in the most charming way possible. (I don’t still think that about babies, by the way.)
That’s how a child’s imagination works: learn something new about the world, accept it at face value, but only comprehend it as far as your own limited experience will let you.
That adorable collision of seriousness and naïveté is captured perfectly in I Declare War from underground film vets Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, which follows a group of boys playing a glorified version of capture the flag called “war” involving hidden bases, weaponry, advanced tactics, and espionage. You get shot, you count 10 steamboats before getting back up. You get hit with a grenade, you die. You die, you go home.
But the thing about child’s play is that it’s not a game to those playing it. It’s very, very real.
The movie is told from the perspective of the kids themselves, so once that awesome stick they found is imagined to be a bazooka, it stays that way in their minds and on the screen. When a paint balloon is thrown, it explodes like a real grenade. When a “soldier” “dies,” they get a grand death scene that is treated with the utmost gravity, even if it ends in the kid walking home covered in red paint.
Because the kids are basing their fantasy on the movies they’ve seen, I Declare War also works as a surprisingly clever send-up of war film tropes by removing the stakes of grown-up wars. The familiar archetypes are all there—the pious one, the sociopath, the mysterious native, the at-all-costs leader—but they’re not fighting over borders, money, lives, or ideals. It’s all about who’s a spazz, puppy love, video game systems, and promises of I’ll-be-your-best-friend. At times, some of the supporting characters even make themselves the leads in their own imaginary movie that only they can see amidst all the action.
It may be jarring to see kids actually swearing and engaging in what appear to be real shootouts, but that’s the point.
This is how they see their actions, when the reality is running around in the woods with a bunch of sticks. Just because it’s imaginary doesn’t make it not real, and just because it’s a game doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. It’s simultaneously cute and deadly serious.
After a slow opening of 10 minutes that make you worry it’ll be like every other overwritten, under-executed Z-grade underground film out there (you know I love you, DIYers, but if you’ve seen one shaky-cam-in-the-woods flick, you’ve seen them all), I Declare War hits its stride and remains completely engaging throughout.
This is what underground filmmaking is all about:
abundant talent but limited means, genuine inspiration with only yourself to see it through, a concept and commitment so deep and genuine that it more than makes up for any gaps in execution. I Declare War is a must-see for parents who want to relate to their kids … even if you should leave them at home.
I DECLARE WAR | RATED NR | OPENS 8.30.13-9.4.13 | @BRATTLETHEATRE