Stephen, a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran, returns from a mental hospital, which he entered voluntarily because he was suffering from nightmares about the war and had in consequence lost three jobs in a row. After having been treated and finally coming home again, he gets a new job as custodial engineer at a grammar school, but loses it again within less than one week because of a law forbidding people who spent time in a mental hospital to work within the vicinity of children. However, the Simmons family desperately needs money, so Stephen continues looking for work, and finds a job picking potatoes. There he makes friends with a man called Moe Henry, with whose help he succeeds in obtaining a job working in a mine - his best one yet.
In the meantime, the twins Lidia and Stu try to get away from the dreary reality of their lives. They find a tree in a forest close to their house and decide to build a tree house there. At first they and their friends argue over who has to construct it and who is allowed to use it; the three boys - Stu, Chet and Marsh - want it all to themselves, while the girls - Lidia, Elvadine and Amber - want them to work on it and share it afterwards. After several deals, they agree to build the tree house together. The girls get everything they need from the garbage heap belonging to the Lipnickis, a neighboring family with a reputation for bullying, who have a grudge against the Simmons and their friends. Unfortunately Billy, the youngest of the Lipnicki kids, discovers Lidia, Elvadine and Amber on his father's territory, so the girls have to pay him to keep quiet, but later after he falls under a candy coma his brothers force him to betray Lidia's secret.
While the children are busy building their tree house, Stephen and Moe are caught in a collapse as they drain water out of a cavern. Moe is caught under falling rubble, but Stephen, who in Vietnam had to leave his best friend to die in order to be rescued himself, is determined to save him, even if it costs him his own life. He frees Moe, but is hit by falling rocks himself, and though the two men are both rescued, Stephen is badly hurt and comatose, being put on life-support in the hospital.
While Stu and Lidia fear for their father's life, the Lipnickis find the treehouse and take it over, stealing the lock and key, which belonged to Stephen. However, they agree to return them if Stu can win a bet - swimming a lap around the inside of a water-tower while it drains - which he does. The children can keep the place, but not before the Lipnickis throw the key onto the rotted, treacherous roof of the water-tower, telling Stu that if he wants it, he can get it back himself. Shortly afterwards, their father is taken off life-support, and dies. When the kids run away from home to the tree house, they discover that the Lipnickis have returned. In the fight that erupts between them, the tree house is destroyed. Meanwhile, Billy Lipnicki protests against all the fighting, asking why they can't share the fort, but is ignored. He takes it on himself to go to the water tower to retrieve the key, but the roof caves in just as Stu and the others find him, and he almost drowns in the water tower. Stu rescues and resuscitates him together with Lidia, and Billy tells them he saw an angel, one who "looked like [Stu,] only bigger," (implied to be Stephen) who told him he had to stay on Earth and take care of his family.
From that time on the Lipnickis stop fighting with the others and stay out of their way, except for Billy, who becomes a good friend to them. The twins and their friends start to rebuild the tree house, but give it up after a couple of days due to lack of interest. Also, they find out that their father bought them a new house before he died and are happy to have a proper home again at last.Elijah Wood - Stu Simmons
Kevin Costner - Stephen Simmons
Mare Winningham - Lois Simmons
Lexi Faith Randall - Lidia Simmons
LaToya Chisholm - Elvadine
Christopher Fennell - Billy Lipnicki
Donald Sellers - Arliss Lipnicki
Leon Sills - Leo Lipnicki
Will West - Lester Lucket
Bruce A. Young - Moe Henry
Brennan Gallagher - Marsh
Lucas Black - Ebb Lipnicki
Christine Baranski - Miss Strapford
Charlette Julius - Amber
The movie was produced by Island World, and distributed by Universal Pictures, United International Pictures, and Argentina Video Home. Eric Eisner executive produced.
Wood's performance in this movie gained him a nomination for a 'Young Star Award', and Roger Ebert said in his review of the film that:
Elijah Wood has emerged, I believe, as the most talented actor in his age group, in Hollywood history.
Despite Wood earning praise for his role in The War, the film received mostly negative reviews from critics, currently holding a 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 15 reviews.