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‘I Declare War’ probes middle school violence

By Joe Gross - American-Statesman Staff

Man, middle school is the worst.

Stuck between the rules of childhood and the solidifying identity of teenage freedom, the middle-school ages (11, 12 and 13) can be the most scarring years of people’s lives.

This chaos is made concrete in Canadian filmmakers Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson’s “I Declare War,” an intense, allegorical film that mixes action movie tropes, the violence of war and the free-floating savagery of 13-year-olds.

For a long time, groups of boys have been playing Capture the Flag with sticks and toy gun and water balloons.

There are a smattering of rules that are enforced, ignored or smartly gotten around: Ten seconds on the ground after being shot (“one steamboat, two steamboat,” the kids say). Once you’re dead (hit by a water-balloon grenade, say), you go home. Capture the other team’s flag and you win.

Though the movie takes place over the course of an afternoon, we have no idea how long the boys have been at it, and the ambiguity gives the proceedings a 1984-ish edge, “we have always been at war with Eurasia”-style dread.

And, oh yeah, now and then the toys and balloons turn into real ordnance, seemingly at random.

Nobody actually dies (the movie is too canny for something that afterschool-special-ish), but it is quite jarring to see eighth-graders with this level of firepower. No way it’s not designed to evoke the images of school shootings, of teenage male rage given access to heavy firepower.

P.K. (Gage Munroe) is the charismatic, somewhat bullying leader of one group. He is obsessed with both the game (and, as fits, the movie “Patton”) and has, according to these kids’ lore, never lost.

Physically, Munroe seems cast against type; he has that sort of male androgyny that guys of a certain age get before puberty deepens voices and longish hair gets cut. It somehow makes him seem all the more dangerous.

Then again, they do this all the time.

Kwon (Siam Yu), PK’s best pal: “What are we doing after the war?”

P.K.: “You’re coming over and we’re eating pizza and watching a movie.” And so it goes.

The other crew is led by Quinn (tall, blond Aidan Gouveia), who has caught the eye of a canny girl named Jess (Mackenzie Munro). Their initial exchange outlines with efficiency unfortunate male-female relationship realities at that age:

Quinn: “You’re a girl.”

Jess: “Sorry.”

Quinn: “Since when do girls even like war?”

Jess: “This is my first war. … I can appreciate war. I play a lot of chess.”

The apologizing for her gender, “appreciate” rather than “enjoy,” confusion as to why she is there, cluelessness on the guy’s part: It’s a smart exchange thanks to screenwriter Lapeyre.

Scattered throughout both teams are a cornucopia of war movie types. Skinner (Michael Friend), one of Quinn’s soldiers, is the plot’s fulcrum, the guy who is both willing to literally kick a kid when he is down and take out members of his own crew in aid of an unknown goal.

Joker is a seriously unpleasant fellow, saying to another player, “If you engage in coprophagia,” gesturing to some dog waste, “I will be your best friend and give you $50.” We all knew that jerk.

“I Declare War” works best not as a “Lord of the Flies” riff but as a solid look at how close middle-school emotions are to the surface and how imaginary wars become real-life conflicts in the space of a too-harsh word. Or hand grenade blast.

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