I wish that director Jason Lapeyre was a child. It would be great if a 13 year old kid had gotten together with some friends, stolen some nice camera equipment and a couple of “How to” books from their rich friend’s parents, and then made I Declare War as a school project. If I were their middle school teacher, I would be extremely impressed with what they had been able to come up with. I would probably reprimand the kids for the constant expletives, but I would overlook that in the face of the overall quality of a 13 year old’s work. I would give little Jason a high five (do kids still do those? whatever), and send him on his way.
And then I would give him a B, because as competently made as the film is, the story he wrote makes no goddamn sense.
I Declare War
Director: Jason Lapeyre
Release Date: August 30 (Theatrical) | July 27 (Digital Download/VOD/iTunes)
There are no adults in I Declare War, nor does the film ever leave the battleground. A few characters come and go from the woods, but never the camera. So this is the story of a game of War, not the characters participating (as much as the film might want you to believe otherwise). War is an awesome game, and I wish I had played it when I was a kid. Two teams make bases, have their “weapons” (sticks, mostly, that take the form of guns thanks to “imagination”), and shoot each other. A shot paralyzes someone; a direct hit by a blood grenade will remove them from the game. They have to go home. End of story.
PK, who heads team Protagonist, has never lost a game of War, but according to a rather expository monologue, it turns out that this is the first real game he’s ever played. Quinn, who heads team Antagonist, uses tactics. Then again, aside from one early display of potential, we never get to see those tactics. Quinn is killed off by one of his angry, mutinous soldiers almost immediately. So I Declare War is a game of P. K. the Champion vs. Skinner the Loser. Unfortunately for the audience, that game is far less interesting, because Skinner has no idea how to play War. He just knows how to yell a lot and torture little Asian boys, which he does, and that’s cool, I guess, except for the fact that it’s not. It’s just disturbing and weird, because I mean like actual-could-possibly-kill-the-kid torture. But no one seems to think about the consequences when they all get home and the parents see bloody rope marks around the kid’s wrists, and by the credits it actually seems like what he did was completely forgotten.
And that right there is the second biggest problem with I Declare War, and the one I highlighted before the jump: it just doesn’t make sense. There is no cohesive narrative. In fact, one of the main characters in the film isn’t even real. He’s a freaking hallucination by the one female character, whose entire motivation is to get the guy she likes to like her back. That’s her entire character. She just wants love. Sure, stereotype dictates that that’s the only thing characters care about (and sure, one of the male characters also has infatuation as a primary character trait, but that hardly balances it out). It’s almost like the writers thought, “Hmm? What do 13 year old girls care about? I know, love! And boys!” Well, here’s some truth: that’s not all they think about. Maybe 40% at most. They’ve got too much girl drama going on to only care about boys. Source: my 13 year old sister.
Kind of lost the thread there, but it still goes back to the writing. It just doesn’t hold up under any kind of scrutiny. In fact, the entire final big confrontation between Skinner and PK, where you find out why this whole thing is happening in the first place, shouldn’t even happen. The things Skinner does leading immediately up to that moment completely negates everything that comes after. PK should know that, but instead he does something stupid in the name of strategy, when strategy is completely irrelevant. At so many points throughout the film. And what kind of teenager would walk through the woods and take rocks to the face for three bucks? I mean, come on. That wouldn’t even buy you a bag of Watermelon Pull-N-Peel Twizzlers (not with tax anyhow).
It really is like the film was written by a 13 year old boy. The male characters, for the most part, are consistent (even if they’re consistently stupid) and have enough variance to stay interesting, but anybody who isn’t a thirteen year old boy (and sure, there are only two of them, but 0 for 2 is a pretty terrible record) is way off the mark.
This is exacerbated by the biggest problem with the film: the acting. Oh the acting… There are good child actors out there. I’ve worked with some of them. My sister’s actually a pretty decent actress. But these kids? Terrible. Their inflections are wrong, their expressions don’t match up with dialogue, and they just kill any kind of emotional weight that the film could have had. Aidan Gouveia, who plays Quinn, is the worst culprit, with a performance that wouldn’t be out of place in something like Troll 2, but nobody rises above mediocre, or even bad for that matter. Flashes of acceptability are occasional but only serve to highlight just how bad everything else is. Even Alex Cardillo and Dyson Fyke’s Frost and Sikorsky, who seem the most like real characters, just can’t keep it together.
I could go on and talk about what I Declare War should have been, but that’s a pretty fundamental “Don’t” for reviewing, and it wouldn’t do any good. And it’s not like it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty good looking and has some not-bad action (even if it makes no sense that a not-grenade would cause someone to momentarily lose their hearing, but whatever). I imagine that there is an audience for I Declare War, but I haven’t the faintest idea what it’s comprised of. The film’s excessive use of expletives means it’s clearly not for kids, but its massive logical holes will bother pretty much anybody or the age of 15. The emotions at play, even if they had good performances behind them, are very specific to children (“Oh no, I’m 13 and my life is over! I’m going to die a loser. Wah wah wah.”) and nobody’s going to care. Still, it got picked up by Drafthouse films and it hasn’t been uniformly panned by critics, so clearly it’s resonating somewhere. Go figure.
But it just didn’t do anything for me. Minutes after finishing I Declare War, I picked up my sister from a friend’s house. She proceeded to complain about another friend saying bad things about her because of a simple misunderstanding made worse by the fact that they’re both girls in their early teens. They’re young, dumb, and I really can’t relate to their problems at all. And just for a moment, I felt like I Declare War‘s credits had never rolled.