Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is sent from America to live with her cousins in England. Daisy is closed off and angry, but it is not long before she starts to relax in the presence of Edmond (George MacKay), Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird). No sooner does Daisy begin to warm to her family, when nuclear war strikes England and she finds herself fighting for survival, and love.
Saoirse Ronan has proven, many many times, that she is a fantastic actress, and she does it yet again in How I Live Now, based on the young adult novel of the same name by Meg Rosoff. Ronan shakes off a little of her ethereal reputation here, and goes for the role of angry teenager. Moods and emotions change rather too quickly for the good of the film, but Ronan weathers the changes and always makes Daisy feel real, even if the audience does not know very much about her. MacKay does well in his role, and his gaze on Ronan borders on electric. It is easy to see why the two are drawn to one another, and why they suddenly feel the need to take comfort in one another.
Tom Holland, fresh from the tearjerker The Impossible, and Harley Bird round out the family, and the interactions between these actors is as real as possible. They are allowed to run wild, as their mother is secluded in her office, trying to save the world, and the relationship between the kids feels authentic and warm. This is a critical part of the film; if this was not believable, then Daisy’s quest to get home would not work.
The story feels like so many apocalyptic movies we have seen before; the fight to survive and find a place where we belong. There are also touches of Never Let Me Go in there, as well as Now Is Good. For the most part though, this strange melting pot of references works; Ronan’s performance is as good as you hope it would be, and the decision to focus on this coming of age story and the quest to find love and a place to call home is an interesting twist on the apocalypse movie. We never learn just what is happening in the major cities, or who is to blame for the bombings across the world, and this, combined with Daisy’s seeming ability to focus and carry on, and the choice to focus on the more fortunate pair – rather than the boys who were presumably sent to war – makes the film relatable. That said, this omission of information also makes the film feel slightly thin, and even though Piper longs for her mother, she doesn’t seem too bothered about being in the wilderness with her cousin whom she hardly knows.
Kevin Macdonald has created some wonderful films through his career, including a documentary about Bob Marley and The Last King of Scotland, but How I Live Now feels like a change of pace for the director. This is an apocalypse movie that skims over the devastation and focuses on the microcosm of five kids. Perhaps Macdonald struggled with this new direction in his career; the movie feels real enough, but slightly superficial. I can’t argue with the choice to use an Amanda Palmer song – Do It With a Rockstar – in the opening credits though.
It would be easy for How I Live Now to turn into a film as vapid as Twilight but, even though the film feels thin, rushed and underdeveloped at times – although the ending is a little insipid and the mystery is sometimes a little too mysterious for the film’s good – the relationships between the kids are what saves it. Ronan shines as always, the cinematography is beautiful and it’s always good to hear an Amanda Palmer song when you least expect it.