Film Review: How I Live NowIt falls to Irish actress Saoirse Ronan to carry the burden of family reclamation in a post-nuclear age in Kevin Macdonald’s <i>How I Live Now</i>, adapted from the popular novel for teen girls. For the most part, she manages.
In How I Live Now, the lead character, Daisy, played by Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones), evolves from a sulky, self-indulgent New York teen suddenly transported to her aunt’s farm in rural England to a loving, courageous young woman. There are two reasons for that: She falls hard for her slightly older dreamboat cousin Eddie (George MacKay—think a younger Redford type, here working with a hurt falcon), and she is forced into the fearsome faceoff of living on the edge, and then tipping over, into an apocalypse. The setting is “sometime in the near future.” Because the movie is disjointed in spots, though moving in others, it’s a wonder that Ronan is able to grab and keep our attention throughout.
British director Kevin Macdonald (Marley, The Last King of Scotland) is working with a script based on the 2004 novel by Meg Rosoff, young-adult fiction with themes maybe too grim for teens, notwithstanding Daisy’s redemptive sea change. The movie might have been called How I Love Now, as bit by bit we discover the origins of Daisy’s anger, sometimes watching her pill-pop her meds. She feels abandoned by her dad, and she carries survival guilt because her mother died giving birth to her. Yet self-loathing and despair give way as she starts to enjoy some family life, almost despite herself. It’s a truncated family, though, as we only briefly meet her kind but harried aunt (Anna Chancellor), who has to hurry off to war duties on the continent. After that, it’s a kids’ world where war is never very far away. “Want to go swimming with us?” her cousins cozen. “It’s your last chance before the fascist regime.” (It’s never really clear who the enemy is, though.)
Early scenes show Daisy and her cousins playing idyllically outdoors, as her sharp edges start to soften. Cinematography by Franz Lustig is elegiac in the early green countryside scenes, and then effectively grimy and gruesome. The watershed moment is when nuclear ash unexpectedly falls as if it were snow. England, both rural and urban, becomes a war state: Spam and rationed water are the norm, and even the British patriots aggressively separate the girls and boys. Piper (the youngest cousin, a cute Harley Bird) goes with Daisy to a work camp and sequestered life in a private home, and the boys, including Eddie and the 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland), are taken to we don’t know where. As it turns out, we probably didn’t want to know anyway.
After slipping away from their well-meaning caregivers, Daisy goes on a vision-directed love quest to find Eddie “at home” and—newly parental and loving—takes Piper with her across blackened landscapes and into Hunger Games-like survival sequences. Most disturbing is the bit where you see a woman hunted down by rapists. (Whether it’s the enemy or home forces we don’t know; in a war-scape, it comes to the same thing.) You will literally jump out of your seat—at least I did—as some predators lift Piper by her red hair and you flash on De Sica’s Two Women.
Throughout the film, we hear Daisy’s narrative voiceover—perhaps more fitting in the novel’s internal monologue—with its mélange of self-help tapes and self-disparaging comments, along with some visionary moments. It’s jarring amidst all the action, though Ronan almost makes it work with her translucent blue cat’s eyes rimmed by punk makeup, suggesting a kind of Celtic second sight. Falling in love, finding your emotions and then your power, having a mindset defined as “Before the War,” is a lot. Macdonald can mix modes and worlds like a wizard, as in The Last King of Scotland. The magic didn’t happen this time, though: He needed the rescue efforts of a young woman with her own kind of before and after.