The summer of 1972 is a pivotal time for the Simmons family living in Juliette, Miss. Issues of racism and the Vietnam War shape their poverty-stricken neighborhood. The 1994 film “The War” delves into the Simmons’ personal struggles from the children’s perspective.
The father (Kevin Costner) is a Vietnam vet who has returned home after spending time in the hospital to get treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once employers get wind of his record, he is unable to maintain a steady job. The mother (Mare Winningham) is frazzled from working two jobs and raising two children. Yet she endures with quiet courage.
Though the parents play a key role in the film, the true story comes through the children. Stu (Elijah Wood) and Lidia (Lexi Randall) are siblings around the age of 12. With the help of their friends, the children plan to build a tree house over summer break.
The only things standing in their way are the Lipnicki kids. The Lipnickis are a group of bullies from a family even poorer than the Simmons. With a drunken, abusive father and a home in a junkyard, the Lipnickis take out their aggression by picking on others.
The Lipnickis attempt to seize the Simmons’ fort time and time again, and the paramount question is whether or not Stu, Lidia and their friends will choose to fight back.
By nature, the kids feel they deserve to fight back to retain their territory. The Lipnickis are just a bunch of seedy twerps anyway. But their father, now returned from the war, tries to teach them differently.
He is a stark believer that fighting does not solve any problems. Through experience in the war, he discovered that “sometimes all it takes is a split second to do something you regret the whole rest of your life.”
Though Stu and Lidia respect their father, there are some things that have to be learned through experience.
One of the most powerful scenes occurs after some of the Lipnickis beat up Stu. The Simmons father bought some cotton candy and intended to give it to Lidia and her mother. Instead, he gives the candy to the Lipnicki kids who had just roughed up his son. When Stu furiously asks why, the father replies, “Because they looked like they hadn’t been given nothing in a long time.”
What begins as a story of characters labeled as good or bad turns into a mixture of the two. The Lipnickis, who were once considered ruthless kids from the wrong side of the tracks, are now seen as a pitiable, crippled family just trying to scrape by.
Race is another issue admirably tackled in the film. Lidia and her best friend, Elvadine, attend summer school in a biracial classroom. When their teacher blatantly discriminates by determining who sits in front of the class and who sits in back, Lidia and her friend jointly fight the teacher using words, ending with a visit to the principal.
For a story told by children, the themes are adult and universal. War, poverty, discrimination, family, friendship and understanding are all built into the summer that changed each of their lives.
Director Jon Avnet allows the story of an ordinary family to capture the hearts of audiences through brilliant acting, powerful, realistic situations and overarching themes. “The War” begs audiences to question what’s worth fighting for.
Staff writer Marjorie Hamburger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.