Fantastic Fest Review: I DECLARE WAR Is A Great Kid’s Movie For Adults

Devin reviews the Fantastic Fest Audience Award winner.

I said hi to her and she threw these dry chinese noodles at me. And her friends laughed but I kept the little noodle that hit me. I got it in my shoebox back home. You know, the one I keep my hockey cards in.


I’m not one for nostalgia. I don’t like old movies or shows just because I have fond memories of watching them when I was six. That said, I’m not above appreciating the wonder of being a child, and the rare occasions when a movie can transport me to a smart, nuanced approximation of that feeling, I fall in love with it.

That’s part of why I fell in love with I Declare War. Not since Stand By Me has there been a movie that so perfectly, precisely captures the mindset of being a kid - the way a day can last forever, the way the slightest things take on apocalyptic importance while major events slip by barely understood, the way loyalties and emotions switch in the course of a single breath. It nails all of these elements (and more, including the strangeness of young love and the way that differing developmental speeds make that whole thing totally fucked up) while keeping a clear eye about it all... but never being condescending about its cast of child actors.

The film takes place over the course of one game of war, fought in a neighborhood wooded patch that, in the eyes of the kids, is like the forest primeval. There are two armies, each with five soldiers and one general. The rules are seemingly eternal, probably passed down for generations of kids: you get shot and you’re paralyzed until you can count 10 steamboats, if you get hit with a red paint-filled balloon you’re dead, and if you die you have to go home. The goal: capture the other team’s flag and bring it to your base.

One team is headed by PK, the smallest kid in the war, with a mop of blonde hair, a mouth full of braces and a perfect mind for strategy. PK has never lost a war. His army includes Joker, the smart-ass angry guy, Altarboy, the chaplain, Kenney, the gung-ho killer, and Caleb, the silent tracker with his trusty dog at his side. On the other side there’s Quinn, a handsome smart boy who finds himself getting fragged by Skinner, his on-edge second in command. There’s a girl in there, Jess, whose female maturity puts her at a distinct advantage. Sikorski and Frost are the best friends who find themselves trapped in a bad situation. And then there’s Scott - the fat kid who bites it before the opening credits.

Each of these kids not only embody child types but also, at the same time, stock characters from war movies. The film’s main, simple conceit is this: the kids are running around in the woods with sticks for guns, but in their eyes - and thus in ours - they’re real weapons. And so kids fire AKs and bazookas at each other, and while bullets hit trees and explosions send people flying, there are no squib hits or blood. It’s the exact middle ground that exists in the eyes of a kid who knows how guns work from movies but don’t know how death works, really.

While there are two teams, and while Skinner is pretty villainous, I Declare War allows you to love all the kids. And even Skinner’s nasty spaz qualities get explained by the end, and it’s hard not to empathize with the kid even while you hate what he does.

For the first 10 minutes I wondered how I Declare War would justify being more than a short film, but the script from Jason Lapeyre (who co-directed with Robert Wilson) does an incredible job of fleshing out the kids and offering continuously fun and exciting opportunities for mock combat. And the kids themselves are simply amazing; they’re totally natural and real, and they bounce off of each other perfectly. Each has a wonderful moment in the spotlight, and every kid kills it.

Watching I Declare War is like being transported back to being a kid playing manhunt on the old block, but seeing it all with adult eyes. The film touches on war movie stuff, but isn’t a reference-heavy clusterfuck. It’s a loving, fun, extraordinarily well made celebration of the imagination and worldview of being 12. It's sweet but never sentimental. I loved it.