Catch Rec is a series where the Complex Pop Culture team recommends movies, TV shows, or books that we're big fans of but might not be on your radar.
As a kid, I had a healthy (...probably) obsession with toy guns. Blame it on my fascination with, ardent fandom toward, George Romero's classic zombie trilogy: Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), and Day of the Dead (1985). In those films, the heroes defended themselves against the flesh-eating undead with a variety of weapons, everything from tire irons to a helicopter's propeller blades to machetes to whipped cream pies. But the pistols, handguns, rifles, and other automatic weaponry used by Night's Ben, Dawn's Peter, and Day's Steel were what really excited me. It probably had to do with the way Romero emphasized the head-shots that eliminated his zombies. Like this:
Trips to Toys R Us with my mom or dad typically involved me heading straight for whatever section housed the plastic guns. One time, I convinced my dad—a Civil War history buff who particularly loved my interest in reading about Gettysburg and Antietam alongside him—to buy a real-looking kid's rifle, one that I told him would look great with a bayonet attached to its top, just like the soldiers did back on 1860s battlefields. The real reason why that rifle was so appealing, though, had to do with Night of the Living Dead's aforementioned hero, Ben, played by Duane Jones. The goal: to look as badass as this while posing with my new plaything:
Along with the tire iron I kept stashed underneath my bed, I'd run around the house armed with that rifle and pretend to blast through the (imaginary) zombies that would try to break in, whether they'd smash their arms through the kitchen windows or bumrush the front door. Wherever they wanted to enter, I was right there, ready, packing a childproof, faux rifle that made a loud, convincing "boom" sound whenever its trigger was pulled.
Those were great times. Watching I Declare War—the newest release from independent distributor Drafthouse Films—brought me directly back to those days. In lieu of Romero-esque zombies, co-directors Jason Lapeyre and Robert Wilson's inventive, straight-faced kids film has the grit, grizzled camaraderie, and high-stakes drama of the best combat films, emulating pictures like Saving Private Ryan and Letters from Iwo Jima on a much smaller and less historically poignant scale. It's Bugsy Malone by way of Platoon. Taking place completely in the woods nearby some unspecified suburban town, I Declare War allows you to tag along with a group of pre-teens playing the most intense game of "War" imaginable, with sticks in the place of guns and their own set of rules. Casualties must go home. You can't interrogate the dead. George C. Scott's Patton (1970) is required viewing for all.
It's a spirited round of afterschool boyhood hijinks, not unlike how packs of real-life grade school chums play flag football or manhunt together—well, kids who actually put those XBox controllers down and breathe in fresh air on occasion, that is. Except that there aren't any cordial juice-box breaks. These youngsters take their war seriously, and Lapeyre and Wilson accentuate their no-bullshit mentalities by playing their actions not for laughs or whimsy, but for intensity.
Though they're only sticks, in the kids' eyes they're holding heavy machinery, just like what Patton's men defend themselves with; thus, in the viewer's eyes, they're shooting at each other with AKs, bazookas, and other Army-approved items that emit CGI-stylized bullet-fire. The "soldiers" are "killed" when tomatoes splatter on their chests and coat them in juicy red goo. The characters—all played with endearing realism by a collection of first-time, legitimately preteen actors—only know death as far as their favorite war movies have shown them, so it's nothing for them to "kill" a friend in the name of War and then remind the victims that it's time for them to head home. Them's the rules.
The filmmakers' premise, on paper, sounds one-dimensional, no doubt, but I Declare War has plenty of meaningful storytelling in its ammunition clip. The main antagonist, Skinner (Michael Friend), starts off as your typical war movie stock character, that of the disobedient, angry, imbalanced second-in-command to the calmer, more levelheaded general, Quinn (Aidan Gouvela). Skinner spends the majority of I Declare War making you want him to wear all the tomatoes, from throwing rocks at enemies to calling a young Asian prisoner a "chink." But as the film winds down, the mean youth's motivations become clear—he's a lonely, heartbroken little boy, an unhappy kid who doesn't understand why his former best friend, PK (Gage Munroe), hangs out with the new kid in town, Kwon (Siam Yu), so much.
Through Skinner's situation, Lapeyre and Wilson tap into a universal theme that all kids, and, in turn, all adults (since we were all kids once, no?), can relate to: Everyone wants to be liked. Everyone wants friendship—the people who seem to rebel against friendship's by bullying others are, more often than not, just lashing out against their own loneliness.
It's true—those afternoons inside my house, acting like I was in a George Romero movie could have been spent hanging out with my similarly immature peers, but they didn't get why I would rush home to re-watch movies on scratchy VHS tapes once the final school bell rang every day. The disconnect and painful isolation was real. Rather than become Northern New Jersey's early version of I Declare War's Skinner, though, I opted to escape into my own imagination. In that way, I wasn't much different from PK, Quinn, Kwon, and all of their wartime allies and adversaries. For me, it was just Playtime with the Dead.
My advice: Cue up Nas' "Memory Lane," head to the nearest theatre playing I Declare War (or the nearest Video On-Demand outlet), and see what childhood memories it conjures up in your mind. Profound, if not also bittersweet, nostalgia is guaranteed.
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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)