I Declare War is a 2013 Canadian independent coming-of-age movie about kids around 12 or 13 years of age playing shoot-em-up in the woods. This game is not that different from the games you might have played as a kid, when you ran around with toy guns or sticks that kind of looked like guns, sneaking up on each other, opening fire, arguing over who hit who, counting to ten while the victor runs off, and then repeating it over and over until it gets dark and/or people get called back home for dinner. Only this has an element of Capture the Flag laid over top of it. And there are four cardinal rules.
One: if you get shot, you must lay down until you count to 10. Two: if you are hit with a grenade (a water balloon filled with red dye), you are dead. Go home. Three: the generals on each side decide where their bases will be. Four: the game is not over until one of the general’s gets the other’s flag. That’s it. That’s War.
You get the feeling that the neighborhood kids play War all the time, enough for them to have developed little grudges with each other over it. And enough for some of them to have become celebrities within their juvenile circles. In this particular game, though, we sense that the stakes are a little higher than usual. By the time it’s over, we’ll see friendships tested, different kinds of betrayal, and a willingness to cross the line between imaginary and real violence.
One side is led by PK, a smart boy with a head for strategy, an interest in military history, and a penchant for using his friends as disposable assets. But he’s undefeated in War, so he’s got plenty of friends willing to fight for him. With him is Kenny, an angry blond kid who sucks at taking orders. Joker is a high-strung redhead who clearly spends too much time on the internet, and fantasizes about disintegrating people who annoy him with blasts of laser vision. Caleb is a mysterious kid with a Siberian Husky who doesn’t say a word but has an instinct for battle. Priest is an altar boy who isn’t comfortable imagining violence of any kind, but joins the game to make new friends. Kwon is PK’s #2, best friend, and trusts PK a little bit too much.
On the other side is Quinn, PK’s arch-rival and equal in mental firepower. With him is Jess, the first girl to ever join the boys in the game. Quinn’s #2 is Skinner, a miserable little jerk who is less interested in winning than he is in bossing people around. Scott, Sikorsky and Frost are all reliable toadies for Quinn, though Frost is such a drone that he relegates himself to Sikorsky’s sidekick. Every army needs its privates.
The game is supposed to be a classic contest of scouting parties skirmishing, direct assaults on each other’s bases, counter attacks, ambushes and all that. But right away, Skinner grenades Quinn and takes over the team so he can orchestrate an increasingly unhinged game of revenge upon PK. As the game continues and players get eliminated, we see that for at least two of these players, War isn’t really a game.
This movie gets a deeply mixed response from viewers and critics, in large part because for much of the movie, we see things as the kids in the game see them. So even though we initially see them carrying sticks for guns, before long, we see them carrying actual pistols, rifles, and grenades. When they shoot at each other, they’re still yelling “BANG! BANG!” but their imaginary guns spit fire, and their vanquished foes explode in bullet wounds, even as the fallen kids lie on the ground, counting to 10 and running away after. If you ever played War as a kid, you know what the movie is getting at. If you never did, the images of kids shooting at each other might be hard to swallow.
There’s a lot going on here, on the scale of juvenile drama. For a lot of these kids, the game is as serious as serious gets when play fighting and real fighting start getting dangerously close to each other. Jess only joined the game because she’s crushing on Quinn, and when he’s sent home, she decides to fight against a bunch of 13-old-boys for love. PK, Skinner and Kwon all get in a dicey hostage situation that as a parent would have me making a few angry phone calls. But the one drama that hit me the most is Priest, the kid who genuinely finds solace in his budding religious faith, and who can’t even bring himself to shoot imaginary bullets at other kids. When he is left behind to guard PK’s base, he struggles mightily to imagine the sticks and logs around him as sniper rifles and machine guns, and for a moment, he succeeds. But when he witnesses one of his own get taken out with a grenade, everything becomes a stick once again and stays that way. It’s a short, quiet moment, but for me, it was this movie’s moment of truth.
Priest’s dilemma isn’t the focal point of the movie; the conflict between PK and Skinner is. But as Priest just couldn’t get into the spirit of the game, I was reminded of how the way kids play games often provides a glimpse of what kind of adult they’ll be. We all remember the aggro kid, the bully, the follower, the rager, the weirdo, the psycho, the quiet one, the dependable one, the manipulator, the new kid, and so many others. And we all were one of those kids, too. Somewhere along the line, we became grownups who no longer play games like War as we once did. But we will always remember what it was like. And those kids will always a part of who we are. How they played helped determine how we grew up. And along the way, we learned that some kids play war games. Others play games of war. It pays to be able to spot the difference.