Declaration of War is the hippest kid-with-cancer movie you’ll ever see. The parents of young Adam go to clubs and parties. They dance. They ride a motorcycle. They smoke. (Um, not that smoking’s hip.) They embraced this lifestyle before their son was born, but throughout the film they don’t quit it, so that they have a means to funnel the stress of having a 2-year-old with a brain tumor.
The film, directed and co-written by star Valeri Donzelli, is a weepie and it isn’t. It’s devastating to see a tiny toddler being wheeled off to surgery, confused by the bright white and strangers around him. And Romeo (co-scripter Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliette (Donzelli) — yes, those are their names — receive as much bad news as good. But the tone of the film, aided greatly by an ever-present soundtrack that ranges from classical to house, is relentlessly normal, verging perhaps a little too precariously on the upbeat. It’s more about survival than death — the survival of a handsome couple’s love-at-first-sight, their devotion to each other through sickness and health even though they never exchange wedding vows.
What’s most remarkable about the eminently watchable film is that the stars had a seriously ill child together themselves, so Declaration of War is essentially autobiography — how difficult must it have been to live through their ordeal twice? It opens with a near giveaway of the end, then flashes back to the charged moment Romeo and Juliette met. They soon had Adam, but his constant crying, vomiting, and other issues made them miserable — and then terrified — fast. “The kid is tyrannizing us,” Romeo barks, though eventually he’s the one who turns a bad mood into concern.
Declaration of War unfolds like a thriller, its early scenes intercut with shots of cells and a beating heart. At other times, it’s more like a terrible fairy tale, with random people — not even characters in the movie — narrating the story. Whatever it’s doing, the film keeps your sensibility just slightly off-kilter, particularly when Romeo and Juliette, separated for a day but on their way to reuniting, break out into song. (Forgive them that — it doesn’t happen again.) In addition to the music and the couple’s partying, there’s lots of movement here — Juliette runs through hospital hallways after she hears Adam’s diagnosis, the couple run and play for sport, the family runs on the beach. Taken overall, the effect is a strong life-goes-on vibe. And life, ironically, is one thing this film’s full of.