HOW I LIVE NOWDirector: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird, Corey Johnson
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 101 mins
Opens: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Rating: 23 January 2014
Elizabeth (Ronan) – or Daisy, as she insists on being called – is a morose, bratty New York teenager sent by her father to spend the summer in the English countryside. Playing host to Daisy is her Aunt Penn (Chancellor), sister of Daisy’s late mother. An academic expert on extremism and incredibly busy given the tense political climate around the world, Aunt Penn is called away on official business. So, Daisy is left with her cousins Isaac (Holland), Eddie (MacKay) and Piper (Bird). Though frosty and unwilling to participate at first, Daisy eventually settles into life away from the city. She also enters into a taboo romantic relationship with Eddie, but their blossoming romance is violently interrupted by the reality of an enemy occupation of the United Kingdom and the young lovers are torn apart. Daisy goes on the run with Piper, whom she has to care for, facing a variety of threats in the hopes of being eventually reunited with Eddie.
Young-adult novel adaptations have become attractive prospects to studio execs but are more often than not risky endeavours too. In 2013, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and Beautiful Creatures were critical and commercial duds. How I Live Now is atypical among such movies, the British production bearing an arthouse/indie flavour. The book it’s based on is not the first in a series of seven; there’s just one book. Lovingly photographed by cinematographer Franz Lustig, this is far from a wannabe Twilight or Hunger Games, though it has been mis-categorised as such. But this is not to say that it stands head and shoulders above its peers as some kind of picture of sophistication.
Director Kevin Macdonald, of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play fame, does a masterful job of quietly hinting at the larger world in which this intimate story takes place. When Daisy arrives at the airport, we glimpse the increased presence of uniformed soldiers and the stepped-up security measures. Chinook helicopters fly past in the background. The threat remains unnamed and unspecified, a looming, faceless terror. Macdonald draws on his own childhood summers spent in the countryside for his portrait of a carefree idyll bathed in soft sunlight, so when the movie enters “wartime mode”, the transition is effectively jarring.
However, one gets the feeling that a far more interesting story could have been told given this rich, thought-provoking backdrop. The film meanders and ambles, time spent with the main characters seeming more like time wasted than anything else. Daisy is sulky, pouty and insufferable, an amalgamation of teenage traits, utterly unlikeable and difficult to sympathise with. At some points in the film, the voices in her head are audible to the viewer, a cacophonous buzz of self-loathing and platitudes gleaned from teen magazine self-help articles. We’re not going to pretend like we were all angels at that age, but Daisy is not an easy protagonist to tolerate, let alone root for. We imagine Kristen Stewart is like this in her everyday life.
It’s at least a little of a good thing, then, that it’s Saoirse Ronan and not Bella Sulkypants in the part. Macdonald called his leading lady “the Meryl Streep of her generation” and that isn’t necessarily hyperbole. Ronan is without her Irish brogue, speaking instead with a convincing American accent. She makes the most of the part and tries to imbue Daisy with something beneath the “like, whatever” exterior. Tom Holland, who was very impressive in tsunami drama The Impossible, is good here too as the 14-year-old who’s still very much a little boy, laughing and playing pranks and still managing to have a good time in spite of the bleak situation that surrounds him. Harley Bird is as chipper as her name (and her character’s name, “Piper”) suggests, but she does sometimes come off as the annoying tag-along kid.
Now, to address the elephant in the room: Daisy romances her first cousin. The term itself isn’t spoken, but there is a “YOLO!” undercurrent beneath most of the film: “We’re young and you only live once, so screw the rules!” MacKay’s Eddie is a quiet, enigmatic animal-whisperer who sweeps Daisy off her feet and teaches her to break free of her neurotic headspace. Young people do impulsive things, yes, but in the midst of this life-or-death ordeal one can’t help but yell at the screen “Guys, you’re not thinking this through!” More often than not, infatuation clouds Daisy’s judgment and her refusal to try and comprehend the bigger picture – that of the impending Third freaking World War – makes it hard to get into How I Live Now.
SUMMARY: It’s sufficiently different from every other teen romance and there’s an intriguing, brutal and sometimes frighteningly realistic backdrop to the proceedings, but its miserable lead character and the unmined potential of the premise mean How I Live Now has trouble sticking.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars