Munro's Jess has a head for tactics.Alamo Drafthouse

Munro's Jess has a head for tactics.Alamo Drafthouse

I Declare War Runs Fri., Aug. 30–Thurs., Sept. 5 at SIFF Cinema

I Declare War

Runs Fri., Aug. 30–Thurs., Sept. 5 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 94 minutes.

This Canadian-made indie, about kids playing capture-the-flag in the woods, apparently wants to say something about the nature of war. The sticks and water balloons wielded by the boys and one girl—most looking to be about 12—are magically transformed during their play to real weaponry, in their imagination and our eyes. In place of the usual “Bang, you’re dead” with finger as pistol, these guns look and sound entirely genuine. The wounded have to count to 10 before returning to the game, unless they’re hit with red-paint-filled balloons (called grenades); then the dead are sent home to watch TV.

No adults are present, so when one kid begins to exhibit some sadistic behavior, “torturing” a prisoner, we naturally think things will go Lord of the Flies—the games become real. We also think of Columbine and Paducah and other school shootings, of the bullied and the bullies who raid their parents’ gun closet. Yet the movie never takes a dark, plausible turn into Stephen King land. Only the resentful bully Skinner (Michael Friend) seems like he could run with the Stand by Me gang. “Even the retards are more popular than me,” he complains. However, this pariah’s revenge is easily defused—like the rest of the scant tension developed by filmmakers Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson.

Without cell phones or talk of Facebook, there’s a timeless quality to this forest warfare. I Declare War could be set in the Spielbergian ’70s or ’80s. Because the smartest soldier here is a girl, Jess (Mackenzie Munro, the film’s most accomplished performer), Wendy and her Lost Boys also come to mind. Yet the enchantment of these juvenile antics never takes hold. When one of the young combatants protests “You can’t stop a war for juice!”, Jess just shrugs. She can and she will.

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