With its allegorical plot about preteens learning to break the rules of warfare, “I Declare War” unfolds like an involving update of “The Lord of the Flies,” with battling 12-year-olds who take their war games a little too seriously. There might not be many physical scars by the end of their playtime, but their emotional scars won’t be fading any time soon.
Guided by four simple rules of “capture-the-flag” warfare, military-history buff and strategical mastermind PK (played with hawkish relish by Gage Munroe) is pitted against embittered rogue “general” Skinner (Michael Friend). Their squads include the standard complement of war-movie soldiers: Kwon (Siam Yu) endures torture at the hands of the bullying Skinner; chubby Sikorski (Dyson Fyke) and chatterbox Frost (Alex Cardillo) are mostly left to fend for themselves; and lone girl-recruit Jess (Mackenzie Munro) totes a crossbow and follows her own keen instincts while harboring a crush on pretty boy Quinn (Aidan Gouveia).
These and other well-cast kids play out their rank-and-file rivalries like mixed-up rejects from “The Bad News Bears,” and “I Declare War” (filmed in a stretch of woods in Toronto) holds your attention with a percolating sense of dread. You never know when a kid might go ballistic with a real burst of violence.
The line between reality and imagination is further blurred by co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson, who frequently turn sticks and other harmless props into real-looking, real-sounding guns.
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Lapeyre and Wilson do a better job of corralling their enthusiastic young cast into a series of high-stakes encounters, and “I Declare War” captures the awkwardness of preadolescence as well as any film since “Stand By Me.” Unfortunately that emotional authenticity is tied to a narrative strategy that loses its momentum.