How I Live Now, Review

Harrowing adaptation of young adult novel set in future war-torn England has uneven tone but gripping and often brutal story.

Based on a popular young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now is unlike any other film geared toward a teen audience that you’ll see this year, or likely the next few years, in fact. Directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), How I Live Now is actually pretty strong stuff even for sophisticated young viewers as it follows one small band of children – led by initially self-absorbed American teen Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) – while they struggle to survive in a future England that gradually descends into chaos during a war against an unnamed enemy. This is still a young adult story in some more conventional ways, so the focus is also on Daisy’s blossoming romance with Edmond (George MacKay), one of the cousins – yes, that’s right, they’re cousins – she finds herself staying with at an idyllic country house in England after she’s sent to live there for the summer by her unseen Stateside father. As the story opens, Daisy arrives at the airport full of withering sarcasm and utter disdain, tuning out the world and her three cousins with loud indie rock on her headphones and an internal monologue of jumbled self-critical thoughts and rules to maintain some sort of order in her life. At first she finds her time at the house – a cozy yet ramshackle abode where her late mother used to visit – almost unbearable compared to her city life back home, and she has little time for younger cousins Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (the adorable Harley Bird). When she first glimpses Edmond, however, seen in striking sunlight while feeding his pet hawk, it is blatantly clear that she is having quite a different response to him. Of course she pretends to dismiss him as well, but we know it’s all a pretense. Their attraction to each other takes a back seat at first to more urgent matters. Daisy’s aunt (Anna Chancellor) works for the government and is briefly glimpsed in her study, frightening statistics about estimated mass deaths on her computer while the TV broadcasts reports of a growing international crisis. No sooner has Aunt Penn departed for Geneva in a last-ditch attempt at peace – leaving the kids by themselves – than a nuclear weapon is detonated in London, launching a war that leaves Daisy and her cousins to fend for themselves, at least at first.
 The wartime material in the film is its strongest element, starting with the haunting way in which the children learn about the distant nuclear detonation: They’re outside in a meadow when an unnaturally strong wind ripples across the field, bringing with it white ash that innocent little Piper thinks is snow. The power goes out next, but not before fragmentary TV and radio reports show that England is under massive siege. It’s powerful and chilling, made more so because the kids’ knowledge of what is happening is woefully incomplete. At first they manage to survive in the house on their own, even enjoying themselves, and this is when Daisy and Edmond finally get to consummate their relationship. It’s also where Macdonald’s film is at its weakest. He (and the film’s three credited screenwriters) gingerly step around the fact that the young lovers – and they do become lovers – are related, which doesn’t seem to bother them in the slightest. But what’s frankly less believable is Daisy’s rapid transformation from snotty American punk to swooning, besotted girlfriend. Ronan is a skilled young actress and gives a tremendous performance for much of the film, but even she can’t quite manage to make this part of Daisy’s evolution seem less contrived than it comes across. The movie picks up again when soldiers finally invade the area and seize the house, splitting the clan. Edmond and Isaac are separated from Daisy and Piper, with Daisy forced to step up and take care of the terrified little youngster. This transformation – from narcissistic brat to protector and surrogate mother – is far more gradual and effective, and takes place during the film’s most gripping stretch. Forced at first to stay with an older couple and work in a camp at some sort of war effort, Daisy and Piper break free and decide to make their way back across the country to the house, where Daisy is convinced by strange, almost telepathic visions (a concept that is never clearly developed) that Edmond and Isaac will be waiting for them. The two girls make their way on foot across an England that is drastically altered, and the movie’s violence and horror during their journey is graphic and unsparing toward adults and children alike. British cinema has had a history of bleak, brutal films like The War Game and Threads that take place in the aftermath of nuclear war, and while the conflict in How I Live Now never escalates to those apocalyptic proportions, it is enough to swiftly buckle the country’s infrastructure and bring out the worst in its citizens. No sequence illustrates this more chillingly than when Daisy and Piper encounter two soldiers in a dark, forbidding forest and the men’s intentions toward the two young girls – even the pre-teen Piper – is not explicitly stated but horrifyingly obvious.