It may not have been its intention, but the chief takeaway from Kevin Macdonald's “How I Live Now” is that there can still be boring stories during extraordinary times.
Beginning in a world just slightly more on edge than our own, Saoirse Ronan (Daisy) is a troubled teen from New York sent to live with an aunt and “step-cousins” (the specifics are vague) in the English countryside. We occasionally dip into her POV, overhearing a jumble of worry and self-doubt. The implication is she may be a suicide risk or at least has a crippling eating disorder. Why Dad thought shipping her off to live with strangers was the right idea is left unexplained, though he may have done it for her safety.
Through half-heard newscasts we see that the West is way beyond orange alert. Turns out Daisy's Aunt is some sort of defense data specialist (think of Walter Matthau's character from “Fail Safe.”) She's usually in London or else cursing into her phone, so much so we barely get to meet her before she's off to Geneva. It's while she's gone, and Daisy finally relents to spend time with twerpy cousin Isaac and moppety red head Piper, that the world as we know it ends.
But before the nuclear blast that destroys London sends that layer of photogenic fallout snow, Daisy looks deep into the brooding eyes of eldest cousin (that's STEP-cousin!) Edmond (George McKay) and falls in love.
Edmond is a nature boy, making cows lay down with just a glance and nurturing fallen hawks. So once the initial panic of no power/no TV/no mom subsides, the crew has the best summer ever running around bonfires to a Nick Drake-scored montage. Edmond and Daisy make love in a nonthreatening manner and everything is swell until the realities of war bust in on them.
Daisy and Piper are shipped to something of a foster home and they spend their days sorting a giant pile of rotten turnips. All Daisy wants is to return to that bonfire, and no amount of guerrilla fighters will stop her.
The second half of the film follows the girls on foot through rough conditions. One is reminded in flashes of better films like Cate Shortland's “Lore” or even “The Road,” but whenever Macdonald' threatens to get into a groove he kneecaps himself. It may have been out of a short-sighted fealty to the “young adult” source material, but for every poignant moment there's a gaudy dream sequence, wretched internal monologue, ham-fisted zoom or an exchange of dialogue sorely lacking nuance.
But “How I Live Now” has some nice work around the edges. Like “Children of Men” and David Mackenzie's “Perfect Sense” it sketches a believable British society trying to beat back chaos. There's an economy to the world building which is striking, focusing more on the water purification tablets than the geo-politics. It works because the girls don't care about the larger conflict, they just want their own happiness.
The fact that our central character is a teen girl and the conflicts stay rooted with her purview is not an issue. (Not to look at it like an entertainment text, but Anne Frank's “Diary of a Young Girl” shows us the world tearing itself apart from the same vantage and is quite effective.) The problem with this film is a lack of trust in the material. It relies on cliché both in form and content. As such, “How I Live Now” is not the really the right way to live at all.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10