For those who can’t wait two weeks for Catching Fire, relief is at hand. Opening in a handful of theaters—and soon available via video on demand—the taut How I Live Now offers a slimmed down dystopian world at its most bucolic. No arcane rules or a mishmash of ideology here, but a survival tale meets hot-and-heavy first love, with a punkish swagger. The screenwriters have taken the snarky-but-soft-hearted, first-person narration of Meg Rosoff’s absorbing novel (Random, 2004), and given the heroine a different, but still-defiant, voice.
Teenager Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) has come across the Atlantic from New York, leaving behind her father and his knocked-up girlfriend, to live with her late mother’s distantly related English cousins. Her wardrobe exudes attitude: torn black leggings and a leather jacket to go with her heavy mascara and severe bleached-blond bangs. At first snarly and standoffish, she refuses her cousins’ hospitality, declining proffered cheese as “solidified cow mucous.”
From the moment she steps off the plane, there are ominous signs of what’s to come. In the airport terminal, a TV monitor airs footage of a bombing in Paris, and soldiers with machine guns roam everywhere. Daisy’s aunt, a barely-seen peace activist, flies off to Geneva for a conference, leaving her American ward with her three children and a neighboring boy.
It takes a world at war to challenge the teen’s self-absorption. When a nuclear device detonates in London killing more than 10,000 people, Daisy and her relations hide out in an isolated barn. Her embracement of her new and briefly idyllic life happens quickly compared to the book’s chapter-by-chapter description. In the film, her realization that she has found a home is summed up in a sun-drenched montage of the teen and her Fab Four in the countryside. (Rosoff describes Daisy’s describes experience as “drowning in the fertility.” Surrounded by wildlife, it’s compared to “Walt Disney on Ecstasy.”)
If it feels as though the rest of the world has disappeared as she gets physical with her often shirtless cousin Edmond (George MacKay), well, in a way it has. In Rosoff’s novel, the narrator plainly states that Daisy and her cousins “DIDN’T REALLY CARE” about the potential doom of civilization happening far away.
The script side steps the book’s forbidden love taboo—Edmond is no longer her first cousin—and an eating disorder. (Daisy has other demons, including overlapping voices in her head.) One more issue would have toppled the script’s full plate. These are fair enough alterations, considering all the obstacles she has to overcome: a contaminated water supply, martial law, and quarantine. The culprits behind the mayhem and their agenda are all left as a tantalizing mystery. The film is both ambiguous and unsparingly lucid. (Director Kevin Macdonald has previously taken on the Munich Olympics in the Oscar-winning documentary 10 Days in September and Idi Amin in the biopic The Last King of Scotland.)
Ronan holds the film together as the story line becomes harrowing and as brutal as The Hunger Games, with references to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. She exudes a steely confidence, much in the same way that another former child star, Daniel Radcliffe, anchored the recent Allen Ginsberg biopic Kill Your Darlings. At times, she single-handedly raises the tension after a wooden reaction shot or two by some of the other actors. Occasionally the film belies its low budget when one of the young cast members delivers a less-than-committed performance. And for all of the nationwide panic, the film skimps on the throngs of refugees, yet the limited special effects are bluntly evocative.
Ronan’s career has become a book-of-the-moment-to-film club: Atonement, City of Ember, and The Lovely Bones. She’s hardly a newcomer, but this role could be her defining one, perhaps in the vein of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Rated R (some F-bombs, a love scene slightly more steamy than CW fare, executions, implied mass rape, and one dead child)