ReviewI Declare War deftly handles playground power dynamics
Posted by Alison Gillmor, Arts Reviewer | Friday May 24, 2013
Gage Munroe as PK in "I Declare War". (Jason Lapeyre)
My first thought when watching this smart, striking little action film from Robert Wilson and former Winnipegger Jason Lepeyre was, well, at least the kids are playing outside.
I Declare War's depiction of a group of 13-year-olds roaming through acres of green forest on a summer afternoon starts off feeling almost nostalgic: There's fresh air, physical exercise, no tech gadgets in sight.
Then the AK-47s come out.
The kids' ongoing game of war is based on elaborate regulations and codes of conduct--like that old-school rule that you have to fall on the ground and count "one-steamboat, two steamboat," when you get shot. But petty jealousies and power-grabs cause the game to escalate out of control, and the line between adolescent fantasy and real-world violence becomes dangerously elastic.
Lepeyre and Wilson take a strong, simple premise and follow it through with intelligence and care. The film, which premiered last fall at TIFF, isn't some gory Battle Royale-style flick--there are no middle-schoolers slaughtering each other for the camera--but the co-directors manage to ratchet up a mood of palpable menace.
There isn't an adult in sight, so everything rests on the talented young ensemble cast. PK (Gage Munroe) is a brilliant tactician, kind of like Napoleon with braces and a Justin Bieber haircut, and Kwon (Siam Yue) is his unquestioningly loyal right hand.
On the other side, we have imperious Quinn (Aidan Gouveia) and Skinner (Michael Friend), his very bad lieutenant, an angry kid whose motivations are at first unclear. Complicating things even further is Jess (Mackenzie Munro), half chess nerd and half junior high femme fatale, who's just starting to figure out the power she might have over boys.
There are traces of Lord of the Flies and a preteen echo of Full Metal Jacket and a smidge of the trendy Hunger Games franchise. But Lepeyre and Wilson make something all their own in this low-budget feature-film debut, concentrating on a psychological study of leaders and followers, bullies and victims, and on the tricky dynamics of power.
And while the story explores some big ideas, the kids are never reduced to allegories. They are recognizably regular kids. They may talk in war-movie clichés and take on pop-culture postures--this is a media-saturated generation, after all--but they also fall, naturally and sometimes hilariously, into the age-old "did not, did so" discourse of the playground. I Declare War plays at Cinematheque May 24, 25, 26 and 29, with a Skype Q&A with co-directors Wilson and Lapeyre on May 24.