“Stand By Me” tells us that no one has friends later in life the way they do when they are 12. There’s a certain truth to that. Those strange preteen years, the time when parents begin to fade into the background, only to be replaced by neighborhood or school friends for support and understanding are likely more formative and important than even late teen experimentation. The mixing of childhood emotions and semi-formed adult understanding is bizarre and remarkable. There is a sudden awareness of sexual feelings, which are new and exciting, occurring alongside a desire to play with action figures or pretend to slay giants in the forest. New desires and friendships accompany the jarring sensation as childhood dims and tapers, forcing a new person to the forefront, a person not yet understood. It’s no wonder seventh grade is so horrible—an internal civil war is waging on all fronts. Friends are crucial in these years because parents are too far removed from the process to truly understand. Vague memories are not enough to help someone living through it.
“I Declare War,” Mise En Scenesters’ latest offering, is a clever play on these themes. Reality and play are blurred in an elaborate game of war, a game with simple rules and consequences that are high drama to those involved. The film navigates the complicated relationships between friends with a surprising amount of heart and understanding.
The rules of “War “are simple. If you’re shot, you lie down and count to ten. If you’re hit with a grenade (a water balloon filled with food coloring), you’re dead and you go home. Whoever captures the other team’s flag wins. The game is played out with improvised weapons over an expansive wilderness with deep woods, babbling creeks, and makeshift fortresses.
“War,” as seen in the film, features coups and betrayals, lighthearted imagination and budding young love, mixed messages and missed opportunities, all combined with realistically imagined violence and familiar action movie tropes. It’s childhood at its best—there are no parents to call out poor behavior, meaning the kids are forced to work out their own problems through aggressive negotiations and adherence to the rules. In the simplest terms, “I Declare War” is a fun movie to watch. The filmmakers are careful not to make the film too adult; as I mentioned, the consequences are important only to the children involved. No one wants to be left out and everyone is concerned with being friends. Friends are lifelines and to deny someone friendship is the lowest form of insult imaginable.
What makes the film effective is its ability to allow the kids in the film to behave naturally. Like most middle-schoolers, they are foul-mouthed egotists who taunt each other mercilessly. Amid all the posturing, we see glimpses of their insecurities and fears, their motivations and desires. The filmmakers didn’t idealize childhood. Kids can be awful, even when their intentions are pure. There are hints of insufferable cruelty, a throwback to scenes found in “Lord of the Flies,” but the darker aspects of the film are downplayed to allow for complexity in characterization. It does a particularly good job of examining male/female dynamics among preadolescents. The lone girl in the film has a keen understanding of her power over the clueless boys, who should learn a valuable lesson about playing with the opposite sex. Whether they do or not is anybody’s guess, but watching Jess (Mackenzie Munro) run roughshod over the battle-hardened preteens is one of the best parts of the film. All of the performances are stellar, especially considering the ages of the actors. These kids certainly say their lines with more conviction than anyone in “The Goonies.”
“I Declare War” is a clever and entertaining film that exists outside the standard Hollywood fare. It’s the type of film that would likely be laughed out of a major studio for not having a solid, demonstrated audience. I’d imagine it’s hard to market. But from my perspective, that’s a good thing. I’d rather have a viewing experience in which I can’t predict exactly what a film is going to be. I’m not terribly interested in polished films produced by committee. There isn’t another film out right now like “I Declare War” and for that reason alone it’s worth a viewing.
MES Presents: “I Declare War”
8:30 p.m. September 28. Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave. (423) 624-5347, barkinglegs.org, $7