Mississippi, 1972. The dirt-poor backwater unincorporated town of Juliette, where the Simmons family lives in poverty. The father (Kevin Costner) has never been able to hold a job long, since coming back from Vietnam. The mother (Mare Winningham) exhausts herself in double shifts as a waitress. Their twin children, Stu and Lidia (Elijah Wood and Lexi Randall), hang out with their friends as the long hot summer looms ahead.
Stu's plan is to build a tree house. Lidia wants to get involved, too, along with her two best friends, black girls who like to sing the hits with her in a vocal trio. Stu and his two buddies don't want girls involved, but the girls win a bet, and the six of them build a tree house so impressive that only a studio prop department could possibly equal it.
Life would be perfect, were it not for the Post-Traumatic Shock Syndrome that still bedevils the Costner character. And those damned Lipnickis. They're the kids of the scuzzy ignoramus who runs the junk yard. And they are as mean and ugly and unclean a bunch as you could imagine: Even from 20 yards, the sight of their hair would send a school nurse running for her clippers.
The Lipnicki boys are bullies. They chase and torment the Simmons kids and their friends, and want to capture the tree house, and play mean tricks. And their dad is a sorry piece of work, much given to bashing his pick-up into the back of the Simmons station wagon. The Costner character could easily thrash the scrawny Lipnicki dad to within an inch of his life, but he has been to the War, and learned that fighting does not settle anything, and he even gives a couple of the Lipnicki kids cotton candy, "because it don't look like nobody has done much for them in a long time." The movie develops several different relationships; the shyly renewed courtship of the Simmons parents; the bitter feud between Stu and the Lipnickis; and, most effectively, the friendship between Lidia and her "best girls," Elvadine and Amber (LaToya Chisholm and Charlette Julius). The movie's best scene may be one in a summer school class, where the ditzy and racist teacher gets a lacerating truth-telling from Elvadine, and then a backup blast from Lidia.
If the movie had remained at this everyday level - the neighborhood, the kids, the families, the problems - it would, I think, have been a small masterpiece. All of the performances are so good, and the casting is so perceptive. But director Jon Avnet and his writer, Kathy McWorter, push on, determined to make Big Important Points about War. They give us two inflated conflict scenes, one involving the tree house, the other a towering water tank, and in both of these sequences we don't see the young characters so much as the pumped-up Hollywood vision.
The war over the tree house, for example, is allegedly fought with weapons that Costner brought home from Vietnam: Still-armed and active smoke bombs, mortars that can fire tomatoes, etc. The Lipnickis fight back with Molotov cocktails. Give us a break. And the water tower, with its terrifying whirlpool inside, is so obviously a set-up that even the genuine suspense feels unworthy; these kids are so real they need a human scale.
Costner is quite effective as a veteran who has seen enough of war. His empathy for the mistreated Lipnicki kids and his love for his own are so real that it's a shame the movie wasn't kept resolutely on the everyday level of his relationships. Look at a movie about rural kids like "Man in the Moon" and you'll see what I mean.
The other strong element in "The War" comes from the young actors. Elijah Wood has emerged, I believe, as the most talented actor in his age group in Hollywood history and Lexi Randall is strong and lovable as his sister.
"The War," a Mississippi-set drama sticky with heartfelt homilies and thin on grit. Kevin Costner, as a Vietnam veteran emotionally and physically scarred by the war, comes home to find an indifferent nation, his house destroyed by termites and his wife (Mare Winningham) redeeming Coca-Cola bottles. But he'll be dang diddly dang diddly dang ding dong if he lets it get him down.
He may live on the wrong side of the tracks, he may not even be able to keep a job as a janitor, but goll darnit, he's got a saying to silver ever' cloud. And if he's got nothing else to hand on to his son, Stu (Elijah Wood), he's got insights acquired in the foxhole and later the mental hospital, where he failed to recover from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
In recalling the horrors of war one night on the porch swing, he confides his beliefs to the boy: "I think the only thing that truly keeps people safe and happy is love. And in the absence of love, there's nothing in this world worth fightin' fer." Stu and his twin sister, Lidia (Lexi Randall), however, are involved in an ongoing ruckus with the Lipnickis, a brood of inbred bullies who live in a nearby junkyard.
Lidia, Stu and their cronies have pilfered some of the best junk and built an elaborate fort in the cradling arms of an 800-year-old live oak tree. The battle between the two groups escalates to such a preposterous degree that it is meant to serve as a metaphor for the Vietnam War, to which their father flashes back in his dreams. Lidia, the story's narrator, underlines the lesson: "My daddy said, 'Instead of fighting, we were meant for better things, you and I. No matter how much people understand war, war don't understand people.'"
In addition to war, Kathy McWorter's first screenplay delves with equal zealousness and insipidity into the subjects of racism, poverty, guardian angels, patriotism, heroism, grief, denial . . . whatever. "The War" has enough plot for six movies and more good intentions than Dixie's got cups. There's just no tying them all up, as director Jon Avnet finds.
"The War" is not altogether without its Southern comfort, especially when it comes to the genuine-seeming scenes between Costner and Wood, who is growing from child star to actor with impressive ease. And Yankee though he may be, Avnet has a native's feel for the mossy pace of Southern living.
If they gave out Academy Awards for earnestness, The War would have to be one of the front-runners. War, it solemnly intones, is bad; so are racism and sexism. And so they are. But The War unfolds as though it had discovered those concepts, never letting an opportunity for an applause-generating speech go by the wayside. As a result, some very impressive performances are wasted on a script that just tries far too hard to deliver a very simplistic moral.
The War is the story of the Simmons family, living in Juliette, Mississippi circa 1970. Father Stephen (Kevin Costner) is recently returned from Vietnam, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and unable to hold down a job, leaving it to mom Lois (Mare Winningham) to keep the family afloat. Their two children, meanwhile, face battles of their own. Stu (Elijah Wood) and his friends find themselves in perpetual conflict with a surly group of siblings called the Lipnickis; Lidia (Lexi Randall) finds out about racism through the mistreatment of her black best friends in school. But the siblings share a love of their treehouse fort, and learn their own lessons about war when the Lipnickis try to take it from them.
When Costner and Wood are the focus of attention, The War is actually quite compelling. Costner gives an intelligent, understated performance which shows Stephen's desperate attempts to find purpose in the post-Vietnam world where he needs to feel he's making a difference, and to impress upon his children the futility of fighting, while Wood gives Stu an undercurrent of anger towards Stephen even as he tries to support him. There is tremendous conflict in their relationship, and both actors do a fine job of bringing it out.