How I Live Now ✮✮1/2
Love Among the Ruins
by Glenn Lovell
A dystopian nightmare for young adults? Makes perfect sense, no? Those adaptations of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and, reaching way way back to the Cold War ’50s, Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” courted a considerably older demographic, the folks who got us in the mess in the first place. As a result, they felt more than a little defeatist, like closing the proverbial barn door after the horses had galloped into the night.
Why not talk instead to middle- and high-schoolers about The End? As the future custodians of the planet, they’re more apt to listen up when the conversation turns to nuclear Armageddon and other doomsday scenarios.
That seems to be director Kevin Macdonald’s reasoning in tackling an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s popular young adult novel “How I Live Now.” Macdonald, a former documentarian whose credits include “Touching the Void” and “The King of Scotland,” delves this time into our near-future ‒ and, no surprise here, it isn’t a very rosy picture.
The wonderful Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) plays 15-year-old Daisy, who’s been sent to the England countryside to stay with her cousins. Daisy is what you might call disagreeable: She’s snarky, closed off … clearly unhappy about being fobbed off on distant relatives by her single father. And she let’s everyone know it.
As if this weren’t enough, Daisy also seems to have a touch of OCD, constantly washing her hands and shrugging off warring voices in her head.
Pressed to hang with her cousins, Daisy snaps, “I’m not one of those stupid Yanks who is going to kiss your ass because you’re British.”
Can anything penetrate this frosty exterior? Long dreamy stares from cousin Eddie (George McKay) start to work their magic. The onset of nuclear winter (“It’s snowing!”) finishes the job. London, according to the telly, is under assault from unspecified terrorist forces. Martial law has been declared. Eddie and his brother appear to be conscripted; Daisy and her pint-sized cousin Piper (Harley Bird) are packed off to a labor camp.
At this juncture, “How I Live Now” goes from Pollyanna-ish and bucolic ‒ all sunshine and wild flowers ‒ to “Children of Men” grim. Daisy, determined to reunite with Eddie, takes Piper under her wing and the two set off on a cross-country trek, battling the elements and foraging gangs along the way.
“How I Live Now” starts off slow and a bit too precious, like a Disney AfterSchool special, but it gains momentum and traction as things become increasingly bleak and the spoiled rotten Daisy, now wrestling with life-or-death decisions, is forced to think of someone other than herself. Credit Macdonald for the difficult mix of gooey sentiment and Orwellian commentary and Ronan for another gutsy, mostly unsympathetic character turn. Don’t be put off by the ridiculous R rating. This is definitely a film to be shared with your teens and preteens. Think of it as a warm up to the next installment of “The Hunger Games,” rated PG-13, of course.
Lovell, former movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.
HOW I LIVE NOW ✮✮1/2 With Saoirse Ronan, Harley Bird, George McKay. Directed by Kevin Macdonald; scripted by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, Penelope Skinner from the Meg Rosoff novel. 101 min. R rated (for profanity, violence, grim wartime images)