A taboo romance and an ambiguous future wartime prove too shallow in gripping, frustrating 'How I Live Now'
How I Live Now Magnolia Pictures
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor and Danny McEvoy
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
If the kind of discipline and ambiguity afforded the apocalyptic events in How I Live Now had been matched with the same care in the film's central relationships (sexual and otherwise), we might have really had something. Instead, we get a viscerally engaging and even scary experience brought down by a cheesy romantic entanglement and character arcs that seem rushed and edited down like Cliff's Notes.
That this is an R-rated adaptation of a young adult novel is intriguing enough, but the film (and I assume Meg Rosoff's novel) skirts even more taboo territory by presenting a romance between two cousins, a shared attraction that evolves into something deeper and more desperate as the world around them gets smaller.
But what makes this such a frustrating experience is director Kevin Macdonald's inability to let things develop organically. That goes not just for the romance, but the character dynamics in general. The film centers around Daisy (Saoirse Ronan, in a performance strangely more self-conscious than usual), a sullen American teenager who is sent away to the English countryside to stay with relatives she doesn't know. Her face plastered with a frozen scowl, her ears perpetually covered with headphones blasting punk rock, she wants nothing to do with her cousins - despite the eager friendliness of Isaac (The Impossible's Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird).
But before we can even catch up, Daisy's armor is already coming down, and she's growing attached to the countryside and the woods and the nearby lake and her newfound family - not to mention her strapping cousin Eddie (George MacKay), who is meant to be complex and interesting because he never says anything and has a pet hawk. Their flirtation blooms into lust, and before she knows it she's forgotten all about whatever it was she was angry and bitter about when she first arrived. She's probably even traded in her Ramones for some Paula Cole. (I need to update my references.) Cut to scenes of said passion, complete with steamy close-ups of their heads and bare shoulders as they roll around in the hay (literally).
Macdonald and his writing team are all too impatient with Daisy's development, introducing her as defensive and hostile and then trying to convince us that, within just a few days, she has become passionately dedicated to this new place and these new people. It's not like there's no time to draw it out - the movie is only 101 minutes long, but tries to cover so much ground that it leaves itself without any room to breathe.
While the cousins are falling in love, the rest of the world is on the brink of war. The cousins' mother, Daisy's Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), is a diplomat of some kind, and takes off for a conference in Geneva not long after Daisy's arrival. That leaves the kids to themselves as the bombs begin to go off, the lights cut out, and their life permanently changes.
Here, in one breathtaking series of moments, is Macdonald (Touching the Void, State of Play, The Last King of Scotland) at his visceral best. A tranquil moment between the kids is interrupted by the sound of explosions, smoke billows in the distant sky and ash begins to fall all around them and layer the ground like fresh snow.
Details are scant, both for the characters and the audience; all that's clear is that a nuclear bomb has fallen, war has begun, and for all intents and purposes, Daisy, Eddie, Isaac and Piper are all alone.
From that point forward, How I Live Now is bound and determined to get from point B to C to D, and winds up short-changing every plot development that crops up along the way. And there are plenty - we just don't get to dwell on them for very long. Daisy's journey keeps changing and we rarely have enough time to settle into one direction before we're already moving in another. This proves particularly harmful during the climactic 20 minutes, which aims for a kind of moral and emotional profundity that it simply never took the time to earn beforehand.
There are a handful of absolutely striking sequences - one at an abandoned refugee camp springs to mind - and the way Macdonald and Co. build dread and tension through exquisite sound design and minimal exposition is impressive. So impressive, in fact, that it deserves a better movie surrounding it. There's so much potent material to work with here, and it feels like the filmmakers simply don't have the time or patience to really dig in.