How I Live Now
Grim survivalist drama proves teen love will survive the apocalypse
How I Live Now
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay
Since the Young Adult category of literature exploded in 1997 with the release of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hollywood has been chasing after publishers looking for the next big YA hit to translate into film. While the Twilight Saga and the Hunger Games series have broken records, others (Eragon, City of Ember, I Am Number Four, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones, Beautiful Creatures) have struggled to find an audience. Some smaller book-to-movie translations (Warm Bodies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) have found niche audiences by going the more indie film route. How I Live Now, the British-made adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s award-winning 2004 YA novel, takes that approach—using a small cast and low budget to construct its unusual coming-of-age survivalist romance.
Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones, Hanna) stars as Daisy, a bratty pop-punk princess shipped off to England for the summer to live with her cousins. Given that the world appears poised on the brink of World War III, that might not be the wisest of parental decisions. But whatever: It gets the plot moving. Daisy arrives at her relatives’ crowded, Weasley family-ish rural farmhouse, a place she seems distinctly unhappy to be.
Initially anyway 15-year-old Daisy isn’t the most sympathetic of characters, spitting every line of dialogue out with snotty disdain. Basically this girl hates everything: germs, cheese, swimming, cows. But most of all, she hates spending the summer in crummy old England instead of back home in New York. That changes, though, when she clamps eyes on her cousin Eddie (George MacKay). Eddie is a studly animal whisperer who talks to cows, raises falcons and occasionally appears shirtless. Thankfully the film is committed to Daisy’s growth, and she isn’t allowed to remain a spoiled, sullen American for long.
One day Daisy’s aunt jets off to Oslo on some kind of secret diplomatic business, leaving the three boys and two girls to take care of themselves. (The adults in this movie are not the most responsible of people.) Inconveniently that’s the exact moment that nuclear war breaks out and the country declares martial law. At this point the film becomes the latest in a long line of stories that leave young kids more or less to their own devices (a category that covers everything from Lord of the Flies to Home Alone). Sans adults, the kids struggle to feed and protect themselves. Also Daisy and Eddie start sleeping together. (Hey, if it was good enough for Romeo and Juliet, the kids in The Blue Lagoon and that brother and sister from Flowers in the Attic, who are we to judge?) Initially the kids ignore government orders to evacuate, setting up their own safe house out in the woods. But the military soon comes knocking and drags them all off in opposite directions.
Daisy and her little cousin Piper (Harley Bird) end up working on a government-controlled farm digging up rotten potatoes for the irradiated masses. Determined to return “home” and to the loving arms of Eddie, Daisy saves up a bunch of supplies, steals a gun and stages a breakout. From there the two girls embark on a tension-filled trek across the war-torn country encountering various horrors, from body dumps to rape squads.
In case you couldn’t tell, How I Live Now is considerably bleaker than your average teen lit novel. At times it owes a debt to Cormac McCarthy’s ode to post-apocalyptic hopelessness, The Road. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) keeps a tight hand on the proceedings, however. He treats his young characters with maturity and respect, while preventing the whole story from becoming unforgivably “adult.” Lensed in the lush English countryside, the cinematography manages to project a dark, muddy, dangerously feral vibe. The script even works in a nifty gimmick in which our heroine’s inner monologue comes out in a welter of whispered voices.
Admittedly Armageddon and teen romance are an odd mix, and How I Live Now isn’t always totally credible. Macdonald makes a bold stab at bringing Rosoff’s story to the big screen, and Ronan is a compelling protagonist. But the slim budget and tight cast make this end-of-the-world scenario seem a bit underpopulated. Fans of the novel will probably appreciate the film. Those who haven’t read it may find it all a bit far-fetched. But if you’ve been in the market for a teen-themed version of The Day After, here it is.