If you met someone whose principle takeaway from “Lord of the Flies” was that “boys will be boys,” you’d have to say that reader had missed the point. Shades of that blithe obliviousness can be seen in the way with which the French filmmakers behind “War of the Buttons” sometimes handle their story, the latest adaptation of a celebrated 1912 kids-in-conflict novel by Louis Pergaud.
Setting their movie apart from other adaptations of the book, director Christophe Barratier (“The Chorus”) and writer-producer Thomas Langmann (“The Artist”) shift the action to Nazi-occupied France. (Among the other versions: a 1962 French-made hit, a 1994 Irish adaptation, and a French production made alongside this one in a Hollywood-style development footrace — which could be either culturally reassuring or disheartening, depending on your feelings about foreign film.) But when there’s such a lighthearted, boys-at-play manner about the story’s established aspects, it creates an odd disconnect from the World War II tolerance lessons that the filmmakers seek to add. War and persecution are bad, kids — except when it’s all in good fun.
To his credit, Barratier crafts an atmosphere of nostalgic sentiment as gauzy as Spielberg or “Stand by Me” with his look back at ’40s France. Convincing newcomer Jean Texier plays Lebrac, ne’er-do-well leader of a junior gang involved in a bucolic-turf battle with boys from a neighboring village. Lebrac regularly gets riled up by his home life, shamed by his “coward” father’s refusal to get involved with the Resistance. He’s intermittently soothed by Violette (Ilona Bachelier), a new Jewish refugee, but then it’s back to rumbling — and claiming the rival kids’ trouser buttons as war trophies.
Indulgently regarding all this is the boys’ noble teacher (Guillaume Canet, “Tell No One”), who seems not to sweat juvenile delinquency as long as the kids are learning a thing or two about, say, Carthaginian combat strategy. Besides, Teacher has other preoccupations: standing up to Nazi sympathizers bound to discover Violette’s secret, and pining for Violette’s attractive guardian (Laetitia Casta), with whom he’s got some vague history.
The story does eventually reach a point where play fighting escalates as troublingly as the town’s oppression, but the two threads aren’t really woven together into the sort of tight, overarching theme that the film seems built to convey. You’d think the telegraphed moralizing would include something along the lines of “do unto others.” Instead, we get some fragmented transmission about a rat being a rat, whether he’s Vichy or the kid next door.