Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now is an odd film — to put it mildly. It’s based on a British young adult novel by Meg Rosson of the same name. (I confess to never having heard of the book or the author.) I liked it more than I didn’t — and maybe more than I should have. That said, the movie definitely has a certain raw power that I suspect works better if you don’t know the book. What makes it work is so completely grounded in what we don’t quite comprehend. This is its strength, and this is why I’m tempted to say those interested in seeing the film should read the rest of this review after doing so. While I have no intention of giving away the plot, there’s simply no effective way of writing about How I Live Now without getting into its deliberately vague premise.
Set in an unspecified, but clearly not-too-distant future, the film opens with the arrival of Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) at a strangely fortified airport in England. She’s clearly not happy to be there and not encouraged in the least when she finds that her unlicensed, 14-year-old cousin, Isaac (Tom Holland, The Impossible), is her driver. She has been sent to the home of her maternal aunt, Penn (Brit TV actress Anna Chancellor), mostly, it seems, because her father would rather not deal with her. (At least that’s her perception.) Considering herself an urbanite of some sophistication, she has zero interest in bonding with her rural cousins. She does her best to remain aloof from them — despite the presence of a hunky (this is YA stuff, after all) older cousin, Edmond (young Brit actor George MacKay). But there’s something about Edmond — the fact that he and Daisy have an immediate psychic link — that both attracts and alarms her. Just as she’s settling into this life, however, there’s an inexplicable strong wind followed by a thundering noise and strange ash. An apparently nuclear device has been set off in London.
We never know more than the children do. We don’t know who’s responsible, nor do we know who the subsequent invaders are — we never even see them up close. This is the film’s shrewdest device — allowing us no more knowledge than the characters, who soon find themselves invaded by the British army. The army plans (they say) to take them to a place of safety — one that requires the two boys to be separated from Daisy and their little sister, Piper (newcomer Harley Bird). Since Daisy is our main character, we stay with her and Piper. They soon discover that this “safe place” is a drab housing estate where they’re boarded with a not unkind couple (who persist in a hopeless belief their son will return), and are set to work scrounging for vegetables. Whatever tenuous stability this might have afforded is soon shattered by the arrival of invading troops, sending Daisy and Piper on a journey to get back to their farm. This often brutal journey makes up the last part of the film.
What makes this work is in no small part due to the four lead performances. I am coming to believe that Saoirse Ronan is simply incapable of giving a bad performance — The Host to one side. But all four are good and sometimes heartbreaking. The film rarely pulls its punches, even though we know there has to be something other than a wholly bleak outcome. Macdonald does a terrific job of always finding the beauty of the English countryside, even while painting it as a damaged and dangerous place. The results are certainly not a great picture, but a curious and curiously involving one. Rated R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas