The fourth screen adaptation of Louis Pergaud’s 1912 novel (and one of two dueling versions to hit French theaters within a week of each other), this “War of the Buttons” melds the book’s anti-militarist story of feuding rural schoolboys to a boilerplate take on the French Resistance.
As with his films “The Chorus” and “Paris 36,” director Christophe Barratier anchors the action to a reassuring middle ground, bathing it in the golden light of nostalgia.
The setting is the Haute-Loire, where an incident of trespassing sparks an epic battle between boys from neighboring villages. Amid bluster about torture and psychological warfare — obvious regurgitations of adult rhetoric — each tribe aims to strip the other of the buttons from their clothes.
Though it’s handled with little subtlety, the way the atmosphere of suspicion in Vichy France filters down to the kids is a smart slant on the material. Lebrac (Jean Texier), who steps out of the dunce’s corner to lead one of the armies, is in part compensating for the collaborationist cowardice he perceives in his father, a hard-drinking farmer (Kad Merad).
A stylish shop owner (Laetitia Casta) harbors her own suspicions about the town’s exceedingly decent teacher (Guillaume Canet). Lebrac, meanwhile, wins the affection of her visiting goddaughter (Ilona Bachelier), whose clearly telegraphed secret leads to revelations of small-town heroism and a schoolyard “Spartacus” routine.
In a film that’s understated bordering on one-note, Barratier encourages the mugging of some of the younger cast members, but the tween leads acquit themselves well.
“War of the Buttons.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for language and some thematic elements; in French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes. At the Landmark Regent, Westwood; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino.