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Declaration of War

A young French couple find their relationship tested by a sick child

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It can't be an easy task to make a relatively upbeat movie — with some laughs, songs and verve-y camerawork — about a toddler with brain cancer. But Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm do — and the work is clearly informed by the real-life couple's trial when their own child suffered a serious illness. They co-wrote the story and star as the leads, and Donzelli directs.

Romeo (Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli) are a young, arty, carefree Parisian couple who after a whirlwind courtship find themselves the baffled parents of a baby boy. But just as they're adjusting to parenthood, young Adam begins to exhibit disturbing symptoms. It's a brain tumor — and after the initial shock, grief and anger, the pair hunkers down for battle. The fight for Adam's survival occurs in hospital corridors, doctor's office and pediatric wards, but the two engage a second frontline trying to preserve their relationship. 

Declaration works because, while it's extraordinarily intimate, it eschews the maudlin and melodramatic approach we expect from disease-of-the-week films. Adam's illness rightly consumes his parents' lives, but it's not the sum total of their lives: They still laugh, dance away the night, fight to retain their identity as a couple. Nor does Donzelli's film sugarcoat the situation: It's frankly damned hard, and there are casualties. But early on, Romeo asks Juliette why this has happened to them. "Because we can overcome it," she replies. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Feb. 17. Harris

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