Directed by: Kevin Macdonald.
Written by: Jeremy Brock & Tony Grisoni & Penelope Skinner based on the novel by Meg Rosoff.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Daisy), Tom Holland (Isaac), George MacKay (Eddie), Harley Bird (Piper), Danny McEvoy (Joe), Anna Chancellor (Aunt Penn), Stella Gonet (Mrs. McEvoy), Des McAleer (Major McEvoy).
One of the major trends in Young Adult novels right now is dystopias – from The Hunger Games to Divergent and countless others, for some reason, teens seem to like to read about a society that has gone into the crapper – especially if there is a plucky heroine there to pull everyone out of it. The interesting thing about How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff’s book and now Kevin Macdonald’s film version is that it is not about a dystopian society, but perhaps shows the beginnings of one. Also, while there is a heroine in the movie, I’m not sure she’s all the plucky – or even likable for much of the movie.
The movie stars the immensely talented Saorise Ronan as Daisy – an American teenager who has been sent by her father and wicked stepmother across the pond to stay with her British relations for the summer – at precisely the wrong time. She’s never met her cousins before – or her Aunt, her long dead mother’s sister – and she doesn’t much want to either. She’s an emo kid, miserable at being sent away, and wants nothing to do with anyone or anything- even the fact that her new home is in the idyllic British countryside cannot break her out of her funk. When Daisy steps off the plane, she sees many people gathered around TVs in the airport – there has been a terrorist attack in Paris – but even that seems like less of an injustice than being sent to live with British people to Daisy. Her Aunt is some sort of important diplomat, and she’s never around – and takes off to Geneva only a few days after Daisy arrives to deal with the looming crisis – leaving Daisy and her own kids – Eddie (George McKay) – around 16, Issac (Tom Holland), 14, and Piper (Harley Bird) – around 8 – all by themselves with Daisy. And then London is hit with a nuclear bomb – and everything falls into chaos.
How I Live Now is a movie that sneaks up on you. At first the film appears like it’s going to be a film about a troubled teenage girl, angry at the world, who we expect will learn a lesson about not being quite so angry – and learning to love life again. To a certain extent, that’s still true – but you wouldn’t expect the film to take the twists it does – first when Eddie and Daisy fall in love, despite the fact that they are cousins (you would think someone would be creeped out by this, but apparently not) – and then as the war breaks out, and the family is split apart – and Daisy discovers she’s a lot stronger than she thinks she is. The whole movie is told from her point of view – we hear her interior monologue of constant self-doubt before we see anything in the film, but this gradually fades away. When the war breaks out – and the girls and boys are split up, all of a sudden all the petty stuff she was concerned about falls away – and she focuses on survival, and protecting her young cousin, and little else. She can still be sullen and morose – and at times cruel to Piper – but she does grow as the story progresses and by the end, she isn’t quite as self-involved.
Ronan is very good in the lead role – it’s somewhat a departure for her, as normally she specializes in playing young women who are smarter than most girls their age (or in the case of Atonement, at least thinks she is). Here, she plays a more typical sullen, teenager role – and she’s very good at the flat monotone that somehow still conveys remarkable levels of hatred and disgust that only teenage girls can deliver. As good as she is here though, I hope this is more of a one off for her – Ronan is getting older (she’s 20 now), and has uncommon skill for an actress her age – she doesn’t need to play sullen teenagers anymore. As good as Ronan is here, and she’s very good, this is the type of role many young actresses could play – something I don’t think I could say about Ronan’s work in Atonement, The Lovely Bones or Hanna
The movie gets darker as it goes along – much darker than one would expect for a movie aimed at teenagers (but rated R because of the violence – some of it disturbing, although none of it gratuitous or overly graphic). Like in his best movies, Macdonald succeeds in placing the audience in the thick of action, and slowly building the tension to a boil.
I’m not sure I was overly satisfied with the way the movie ended. After all the darkness the movie contains, it seems like the ending wanted to put a happy ending on a movie that doesn’t need one – and when you think about, the ending isn’t happy at all, despite how the Macdonald and company portray it. I wish the filmmakers had pushed things farther than they do – and ended on a more ambiguous or even downbeat note. That would have been more in line with everything that had come before. As it stands, the movie works – but had they push things further, it could have been much better.