Any parent will tell you that their own well-being isn't as important as their children's, and any parent whose child has faced a serious health crisis will tell you there's nothing worse that they could imagine going through. That's what Romeo (Jérémie Elkaim) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli), a young, hip French couple, must face when they learn that their young son, Adam, is seriously ill in Declaration of War, opening Friday, Feb. 3, at the Ken Cinema.
Let's clarify a few things: That's a lousy title for this movie, but it's an understandable one, because when people are faced with crises such as these, they feel like they're gearing up for battle—with insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and their kid's ill health. That said, Donzelli and Elkaim, who co-wrote the screenplay (and Donzelli directed), consider this to be a war, because the movie is based on their own experiences of having a child with a serious condition.
It all begins before Adam is born, when Romeo and Juliette meet at a party. There's an instant connection, and soon her date is storming out, furious that she is making out with a new guy. The two seem meant for each other, and it isn't long before they're shacked up and she's knocked up. They're thrilled to have a gorgeous baby boy, but Adam doesn't keep up with the other kids his age, and he has problems eating, among other issues. Romeo and Juliette, as all parents do, worry, but in their case, they truly have something to worry about.
The film's most intense moments come early, as the couple begins to see specialists and get Adam tested. There's a palpable feeling of dread that they desperately try to ignore, hoping for good news, ignorant that what they're going through will develop into a minefield that could stretch out for years. They lean on one another as they struggle to process information and navigate incredibly challenging terrain in a state of shock and numbness; their emotions throughout are painful and real.
Once Romeo and Juliette know what they're facing, the movie loses some steam; it becomes more about their relationship and how they're dealing with each other, rather than the trauma of Adam's health. Additionally—and this is likely due to telling such a personal story—Donzelli occasionally experiments with different styles and ideas, with varying levels of success. There's definitely a song in her heart, but there's no need to see the two of them sing one, mostly because it takes the viewer out of the emotional intensity of the story itself.
What Declaration of War does well is illustrate the unbelievable stress and trauma experienced by parents with children who have health needs or who are different; these parents are simply facing up to the fact that their expectations have been altered or denied. It's a film parents of children like Adam will recognize and relate to, but it's a film that would benefit all parents of typically developing children, too. No, they won't fully understand what Romeo and Juliette are going through; nor will they relate to the sense of isolation that parents like these two experience. But, hopefully, they'll appreciate that their own children are healthy and, with any luck, happy.
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