How I Live Now Review
Despite what the misleadingly lightweight preview trailers might have tricked you into believing, How I Live Now isn't merely yet another Twilight-style emo teen-angst love story, which, this time, just so happens to be set against a backdrop of World War 3. Director Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Meg Rosoff's popular young adult novel has much more in common with John "Lawless" Hillcoat's relentlessly bleak adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's equally oppressive The Road than anything that the teen-love department might have to offer.
Unfortunately, in spite of the mismarketing, knowing the truth about How I Live Now is not as rewarding a revelation as you might have hoped for. Macdonald is no stranger to docu-style tales of survival, cutting his teeth on the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September, before turning his hand to the brutal Touching the Void and the oppressive Last King of Scotland, but his surprisingly small-scale look at a quartet of youngsters - actually, mainly two young girls - trying to survive in the aftermath of the outbreak of war is, unlike the others, neither inspirational nor exceptional in any particular way. Sure, it's pretty far from your usual emo teen drivel, and it's considerably more brutal than most would be expecting, but it still feels like it just doesn't have much to say - and certainly nothing new to offer. Indeed, if you've seen The Road then you may well feel like this is just the lite version of a very similar story.
Self re-named and fiercely independent New York City teen Daisy has been sent by her father to stay with her rural-based cousins in England. Inwardly plagued by obsessive compulsive habits - particularly involving cleanliness - she struggles to survive in the messy, relaxed, but infinitely more disorganised country atmosphere; where her cousins enjoy a life free of immediate responsibilities and dominated by carefree open-air fun, like playing in the local river. She knows that her inner OCD is a demon that rules her, but she can't help it, and has never really had to confront it. That is, until she sets eyes on her now-all-grown-up eldest cousin, Eddie, who has little patience for her idiosyncrasies, and for whom she discovers that she has feelings.
Macdonald is no stranger to docu-style tales of survival
Just as his own moves towards her start to break down her defences, and romance begins to flower between the two of them, the news comes in that a nuclear bomb has been detonated in the Capital, sending the country into chaos and seeing the teen lovers torn apart and sent to separate military camps. With a largely unseen rebel army sweeping across the country, raping, pillaging and killing everything in their path, will Daisy ever see Eddie again?...
Although some credit should be given to the director for his attempts to keep this film adult in both tone and content - rated for strong language, once very strong, strong sex, violence and threat - his attempts to largely circumnavigate the World War 3 backdrop do not go unnoticed, leaving his brief dips into brutal conflict (kids getting shot in the head, women getting gang-raped) barely connecting with his main survival/coming-of-age narrative, and instead merely reminding us that this is not conventional teen territory, despite the fact that, at its core, it patently is.
What actually makes this a marginally more mature journey is the refined portrayal of the characters themselves: Saoirse Ronan's Daisy is far from your typical rebellious-teenager-with-authority-issues, and Macdonald's intricate, almost subliminal depiction of her OCD traits - you can hear the maelstrom of brainspew that is going off in her head - is a welcome added element for this character. Ronan herself has done well to maintain momentum following her potentially career-defining central role in Edgar Wright's excellent atypical thriller, Hanna; the story here actually imbued with elements from an earlier collaboration with Wright for the excellent – and far superior – period lovers-torn-apart-by-a-World-War drama,Atonement.
Like Chloe Grace Moretz and, before her, Natalie Portman (and, before both of them, Jodie Foster), Ronan is one of those child actresses who seemingly jump straight to adult roles before their time, something which can cause difficulties when they actually do grow up. Luckily she has largely managed to evade these problems, and, irrespective of its flaws,How I Live Now is undoubtedly a prime example of Ronan at large and in charge of a mainstream movie all by herself. As stated, some may dismiss this as The Road-lite, but that film's star - Viggo Mortensen - was 50 when he shot it, not 18.
Of course Ronan isn't the only player in this piece - The Impossible's Tom Holland, Defiance's George MacKay and the voice of Peppa Pig herself, Harley Bird, all keep up the youth contingent, whilst Spooks regulars Anne Chancellor and Corey Johnson interject with their cameo contributions - but the spotlight is firmly upon her. Indeed, whilst the early preview trailers misleadingly focussed almost entirely on the romantic strands within the film, the end result goes in the opposite extreme - the potential blossoming romance between these two teens is actually underdeveloped, hinting at a deeper relationship and longer background, but not really rounding out the arc with any kind of conviction. As a result, Daisy and Eddie's journey from zero-to-Romeo-and-Juliet feels more like an overnight rush-job than an inescapable product of simmering chemistry.
So Macdonald's feature, if anything, feels a little safe for the generally adventurous filmmaker. He's scaled icy mountains and faced off against volatile dictators; traversing a would-be apocalypse from a safe distance feels like a bit of a walk in the park by comparison. Audiences will be confused and divided too - there's not enough teen romance to suit the younger demographic (let alone enough to make the story work) and there's not enough World War 3 confrontation/survivalism to suit everybody else.
At the end of the day you'll warm to the set-up, enjoy the characterisations and teen performances, be mildly taken aback by the fury of the change-of-events, and then slowly lose interest on the voyage home. A part of me wonders whether even maintaining the telepathic elements from the source book could have given this a little more original worth. As it is, we've seen it all before, and better, so whilst there's nothing particularly wrong with How I Live Now, there's nothing to write home about it either. For dedicated Saoirse Ronan fans only.
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