HOW I LIVE NOW Review

If Twilight is the bubblegum pop of young adult literary adaptations and Hunger Games is the more alternative rock that still gets played on Top 40 radio, then How I Live Now must be labeled as the punk rock version of these popular archetypes that continue to be re-imagined and place young, female heroine's at the center of their conflict. I had not heard of Meg Rosoff's novel that was first published in 2004 (a full year before Twilight and four before The Hunger Games) prior to discussions of director Kevin Macdonald's adaptation out of the Toronto International film Festival. I was intrigued not only because Macdonald has directed a slew of acclaimed documentaries and feature films, but because it starred an aggressive-looking Saoirse Ronan and the last time she looked to be in this form was 2011's Hanna in which she turned contributed a great performance to one of my favorite films of the year. Though Ronan attempted to headline her own young-adult female-centric fantasy adaptation earlier this year with The Host, that effort bombed both with critics and general movie-goers, but How I Live Now is a different beast entirely. The mega-hits like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games fall into that category because they are the first out of the gate in concept and execution, while the ones that trail behind will not find near the success for that same reason. The good news concerning How I Live Now is that it doesn't strive to be anything it's not and while it will seem all too familiar with today's Hunger Games-fueled audiences this is not a likable protagonist at the center of the story, it doesn't offer the typical love triangle nor does it strive to extend its saga over multiple chapters, but instead Rosoff created an isolated incident of how the greater affects of war and isolation effect a single soul as we see a large event through a small window. Much like Steven Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds, Macdonald uses the personal perspective to differentiate his film from those that we have seen before where a more global look is taken as society comes to an end. Here, we are as confused and lost as the characters we are following. This doesn't always work in terms of successful storytelling, but it certainly keeps us intrigued and ready to stick with wherever that story decides to go.

From left: Isaac (Tom Holland), Joe (Danny McEvoy), and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) stroll through the English
countryside as Eddie (George McKay) pushes his younger sister, Piper (Harley Bird) in How I Live Now.
We meet Daisy (Ronan) as she lands in England to spend the summer with her cousins who live in the beautiful English countryside. Daisy is American and knee-deep into her rebellious adolescent phase complete with black leather and defenses always on the up and up. She is hesitant to be there and she hates her dad even more than she probably thought possible for dumping her in this place she knows nothing about. Upon meeting her three very self-sufficient cousins, Eddie (George MacKay), Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), Daisy continues to push against what those who have "sold out" might deem acceptable, but the charm and genuine love that her cousins start to exhibit is unavoidable and she inevitably folds. We are given time to get to know these children just as Daisy is given time to assimilate herself into their world and culture from which she builds a somewhat testy bond with Eddie, the cousin closest to her own age while serving as a matriarchal figure to little Piper given she was the only girl of the bunch and their mother (Anna Chancellor) is never around, but the whisperings of what she does as a profession and what she is working on do not go unnoticed. The English cousins form an almost "lost boys" mentality as they run to the rivers and swim all day and make food to fill themselves without cleaning up afterwards. It is on the day after their mother leaves for a business trip that the children are going about their normal routine and something cataclysmic occurs. We, along with them, only hear a loud noise and shortly after bits of what we assume are ash and what Piper assumes is snow begin to fall from the sky. The children rush back to their house to hear the newscast talk about a nuclear device and who might be responsible before it, along with all other electrical devices in the house, go out. It goes with the child's instinct to make the best of each situation and that is what happens as Daisy and her cousins simply begin to take their life for what it is, as if this was always meant to happen and they are simply doing what anyone else would do. That is, until gun shots come whizzing through their windows one morning and Daisy and Piper are separated from Eddie and Isaac.

What inherently makes How I Live Now so appealing is its idea of putting highly emotional and instinctual human beings in this situation where they come face to face with decisions that will make or break the remainder of their existence. It is a stark reality put front and center and Ronan carries this weight with her usual quietness that feeds into a brooding underbelly of resentment. Both early on and in the latter half of the film Ronan is required to react to the thoughts going on within her own mind. Macdonald gives quick, frantic voice-overs to display the inner-dialogue Daisy constantly has running through her mind that guide her in making every decision, but these become far less prominent as the movie progresses and Daisy becomes all the more confident in who she is and what she is doing to reach her ultimate goal of reconnecting with Eddie and Isaac at their house. In a moment of realization, Daisy speaks about wanting to know what it life feels like at seventeen and twenty-five, but more importantly indicates an epiphany of what direction she would like to take her life so that when she looks back on it, hopefully man years from now, she will be satisfied. It is when the film takes its darker turn from the Kings of Summer-vibe of kids living free in the woods to the post-apocalyptic survival tale that the film began to both gain an edge and lose its authenticity. I actually enjoyed the subtleties of what the film was trying to allude to and how it kept a fair portion of the details as to why the world changed so rapidly out of our sights, but this also makes the film feel less substantial than it probably should have. There are large consequences at play here and much in line with the comparison to War of the Worlds earlier I like that we get a more personal take on what could have essentially become a large-scale action adventure story. What Spielberg's small perspective kept in mind though was that it still needed to imply an idea of the fairly big environments and threats coming to light in order for the audience to understand the gravity of what was being eluded to. There is none of that here which almost makes the circumstances of Daisy and Piper making it back to their farm seem inconsequential. Worse than this, just as the second half of the film begins to pick up and we begin to see the layers of what exactly our protagonists are facing come undone the film wraps a nice bow around everything and lets the credits roll.

Daisy takes on a very tumultuous journey of self-discovery in How I Live Now.
I can appreciate the film for its effort in what it is trying to accomplish. There are small character moments between Daisy and each of her cousins that highlight the performances of each of the young actors and the character arc for Daisy is performed almost flawlessly by both Ronan and the trio of screenwriters that adapted Rosoff's novel. We believe in Daisy, not in the general way that she is a born leader or fearless to the truths of what this new world might bring, but in a way that she is real and that her convincing attitude would actually go through the transformation it does given what she is abruptly exposed to and how fast her world changes around her. Macdonald employs a dark color palette in the latter half of the film that makes it reminiscent of many a movies depicting the Holocaust. It is a stark differentiation from the brightly colored countryside we are exposed to as we are introduced to each of the characters and their equally glorious, care-free lives. I also enjoyed the livid quality of the soundtrack that seemed to scale the emotional ups and downs of our lead character along the way. There is much to like about this film, but there is also much to be desired and that was the problem I couldn't find myself overcoming. I liked it, there is nothing glaringly wrong with it, but it doesn't have that profound feel to it as I imagine the final words of the book might have impressed upon the reader who wasn't able to get the themes and images they conjured up in their minds out of their head for days. There are small moments that pop up like that here, especially when it begins to "snow" on the children and they have looks on their faces that equal both pure innocence and the loss of innocence encapsulated in one singular moment, but again they are too few and far between. How I Live Now will likely add very little to the conversation as far as young dystopian adaptations go, but it at least proves a distracting diversion for an hour and forty-minutes that allow star Ronan and director Macdonald a spare moment to flex their creative muscles before moving onto material that will hopefully challenge them both a bit more than this.