by Kathie Smith
How I Live Now, based on the award-winning 2004 young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, captures a war-torn vision of Western society through the typical and, to some, familiar eyes of a sullen, anxiety-ridden teenage girl. In the not-too-distant future, Europe has become a militarized zone with the threat of terrorism looming. But that threat hangs somewhat ambiguously, as the strict first-person point-of-view limits the where, when, and why to the purview of 16 year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), who is far more preoccupied with her own insecurities than the political tinderbox that is about to explode.
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Producers: Andrew Ruhemann, John Battsek, Charles Steel, Alasdair Flind, Tessa Ross, Robert Walak, Piers Wegner, Nigel Williams
Writers: Meg Rosoff (novel), Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, Penelope Skinner
Cinematographer: Franz Lustig
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Music: Jon Hopkins
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Harley Bird
Premiere: September 10, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 1, 2013
US Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Daisy has been shipped off to stay with her aunt and three cousins in the British countryside while her father makes house with his new wife and new baby in New York. Clad in a leather jacket, black tights, heavy eyeliner and straight bleach-blond hair, Daisy, a timeless teenage rebel, plays it tough in order to hide her fragility. The critical voices in her head—audible, as if they are just that close to the surface—reveal her demons of self-doubt and condemnation. Her churlish nature toward the world, and in this case toward her eager-to-please young cousins, acts as armor against painful rejection, like that she feels from her father, and irrepressible guilt, like that she feels for her mother’s death during childbirth.
As the obliviously happy Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird) work tirelessly to cheer Daisy up, her quiet and handsome older cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), makes the most headway in disarming Daisy’s walls of defense. First comes love to shake her out of her inhibition, but second comes a batch of far more severe life lessons caused by a sudden plunge into civil war when rebels detonate a nuclear bomb in London. With Daisy’s aunt, an activist in the peace process, away, the four adolescents are left to fend for themselves. By the time they settle into their isolated independence, a military evacuation forces them to work camps, separating the two boys from the two girls. Daisy and Eddie’s love for one another, compounded by the miserable circumstances, becomes a force for them to survive and furthermore reunite by any means necessary.
The subtle intonations of a near future work well to keep our focus on Daisy, but they also lend constrained credibility to an environment skewed ever so slightly. The social collapse that follows the attack, disrupting the UK’s urban infrastructure, slowly reverberates to the rural areas and transports Daisy into much more dangerous territory. The film finds an apocalyptic middle ground to the soft-peddling of John Hillcoat’s The Road and the savage social realities of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later as Daisy and Piper vulnerably make their way back home with some very harsh and horrifying realizations on human brutality and on their very delicate predicament.
Shapeshifting director Kevin Macdonald, who gave us One Day in September and Touching the Void right alongside The Last King of Scotland and State of Play, persists in making How I Live Now Daisy’s film, and, in turn, Ronan’s showcase. Ronan, who dominates nearly every scene, does wonders to bolster the sentiment with a steadfast and fiery girl-meets-world performance, but the overly conscious tunnel vision to this portentous tale might sell the average teenager, as well as the audience, short. While the near disregard for the politics at hand intends to underscore Daisy’s blind dedication to her newfound potential for happiness, it also implies that the war is too complicated for her and her fellow cousins.
Daisy’s resilience as she battles doubt and embraces resolve nonetheless proves her savvy beyond the parameters of the literal story. Love may have been the hypothetical means to an end, but it is the psychological fight of an ordinary girl within extraordinary circumstances that gives this film a pulse. How I Live Now offers pitch-perfect empathy with a character and scenario far richer and engaging than most of its ilk, and, despite the incongruent R rating, reaches out a younger demographic underserved by films too obsessed with fantasy. This might be tougher love that you’ll find in The Hunger Games, but it’s worth it.
(Originally published on In Review Online.)