Based on the novel of the same name, this adaptation moves the setting during WWII in France. It’s a small town where everyone knows each other, but recently it’s been infected with fear and paranoia. The Nazis have been pushing the town folk around while looking for Jews in hiding. There are 2 rival gangs of kids who constantly fight each other. The main focus of the movie is on one of the gang leaders, Lebrac, who’s around 12. During one of the battles with the other gang, Lebrac gets the idea to take the buttons from any rival gang member they catch. Thus the title, “War of the Buttons”. Lebrac also befriends a girl named Violette, who is a Jew hiding out in a friend’s house. This friendship helps the normally rebellious and reckless Lebrac grow and mature as a man. But when word gets out that a Jew is hiding in the neighborhood, the Nazi’s threaten to destroy the town.
It’s a pretty familiar story, but it’s done with tender care and definite style. Director Christophe Barratier, who made the wonderful PARIS 36, fills the movie with a refreshing sense of wonder, imagination and innocence. The interaction between the kids are genuine. There isn’t a false note between them. I was surprised by how dark the battles the kids partake in. It’s intense stuff. There’s a scene when 2 really little kids (like 5 and 6) get captured and are being stripped of their buttons. It was almost the equivalent of them being tortured. But then Labrec comes to the rescue only to be captured by the enemy and have his buttons stripped as well. A very gripping scene.
There’s also some adult characters who play a key role in the movie. The schoolteacher is in love with the women that Violette is staying with. Sometimes these kinds of subplots get in the way of the central story, but it fits here. Even added to the story. There’s some heavy moments involving Labrec’s abusive relationship with his father that work for the movie. But for me, the heart of the story was the relationship between Labrec and Violette. It’s one of those subtle romances that embodies the innocence of first crushes. Their scenes together really struck home for me. It helps that both performers are talented, especially Ilona Bachelier, who is completely genuine and hits all the right beats.
It’s not anything I haven’t seen before, but it’s a well put together production. I thought it was a bit short, as it doesn’t even hit the 90 minute mark. They probably could have expanded on a few things. I also thought it ended a little to abrupt. But the movie is a joy to watch. This is a great movie about kids dealing with situations that kids shouldn’t have to deal with. It’s moving, touching, and uplifting. I can’t wait to bring my 9-year-old to this. She’ll love it! It’s a well-balanced movie that has a nice moral center to it. For anyone who played war games with the neighbors as a child, this is definitely worth a look. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for language and some thematic elements.
– Running time: 1hr 27min.