Film Review: How I Live Now

In a world on the eve of destruction, heroine Daisy goes from saucy to survivalist.

Nov 8, 2013 at 2:59 pm

How I Live Now | B-

Move aside Road Warrior, Book of Eli and The Road, Armageddon isn’t just for dudes anymore. With the incredible box office and bestselling success of The Hunger Games, it was only a matter of time before teen romance and grrl power found its way onto the post-apocalyptic landscape. Imagine if Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf had been penned by Stephanie Meyer and you’ll get an inkling of what How I Live Now is attempting to pull off.

Luckily, Meg Rosoff’s source novel and director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) have more taste and sense than try to emulate the gooey and nonsensical passivity of Twilight. Instead, they’ve opted for a menacing survivalist tale set in England’s pastoral countryside.

Saoirse Ronan plays Daisy, a 16-year-old American sent to spend the summer in Britain on her Aunt Penn’s bucolic farm. Contentious and insecure, she has little patience for noisy cousins Isaac and Piper, or the livestock that frequently wanders into their unruly home.

The one saving grace is hunky and hawk-whispering Edmond (George McKay), who says little but smolders with romantic possibility. And before you start worrying over issues of incest, How I Live Now makes sure to note that Daisy and Eddie are cousins by marriage, not blood. Of course, just as their relationship starts to take flight, Penn is called away on emergency government business. The European continent is in turmoil, violence is breaking out around the globe and England descends into martial law. Soon, locals are being evacuated to labor camps and the kids are split up by the military. Daisy and Piper plan to break free and vow to meet up with the boys back at the farm.

It’s an effective setup, and Macdonald masterfully unspools the ominous impact of global events on the kids’ lives. From incidental television reports and late night phone calls to the strange white dust that drifts down after a distant explosion, the movie is particularly adept at establishing an atmosphere of dread and foreboding. That instinct for sinister imagery serves Macdonald’s film well as Daisy and Piper later stumble across the chilling aftermath of murders and conflict.  

Unfortunately, the second half of How I Live Now is filled more with incident than story. The girls bicker and trek through the forests of northern England, dodging rebels, rapists and mass killings, but there’s no arc to their encounters or relationship. Instead of tension, dullness sets in.

Ronan is a terrific actress, and when we first meet her Macdonald tries to give us a peek into the neurotic thoughts swirling around inside her head. But as Daisy changes from sullen, self-involved teen to ferocious young survivalist, Macdonald depicts the transformation with indifference, offering little in the way of dramatic context or explanation. Other than her love for Edmond, the film treats her evolution as an inevitable facet of the plot rather than a convincing character development.

How I Live Now lacks the dramatic sweep and narrative specificity of YA adaptations like Ender’s Game or The Hunger Games, but provides enough encroaching darkness and emotional immediacy to make it a respectable addition to the genre. And with a talented cast led by Ronan, it remains watchable from beginning to end.

How I Live Now is in theaters now and is rated R, with a running time of 101 minutes.