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How I Live Now

by Kevin Taft
Contributor
Friday Nov 8, 2013
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Saoirse Ronan stars in ’How I Live Now’
Saoirse Ronan stars in ’How I Live Now’  (Source:Magnolia Pictures)

The onslaught of Young Adult novels being turned into films and/or franchises doesn’t seem to be fading away. From the "Twilight" series to "The Hunger Games" to a myriad of other dystopian thrillers, teen romance mixed with preternatural intrigue is hot. And, while giving this genre the big-budget glossy treatment seems like the way to go, it’s clear that only a few of those stories make it big.

So it’s refreshing that a well-respected indie director has taken the well-regarded YA novel "How I Live Now" and given it a fresh, indie take that makes us sit up and take notice. It also allows us to care about the pinings of a teenage heart without rolling our eyes.

Director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") has assembled a great British cast of kids to tell the story of an angry sixteen-year-old American girl named Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) who goes to visit her cousins in the English countryside, only to be caught in the middle of a nuclear war that divides them. With shades of "Red Dawn" and Australia’s own YA series "Tomorrow, When the War Began," "How I Live Now" is an intelligent and emotional film that touches on teen romance and coming-of-age, but navigates so much more.

When Daisy arrives at the charming and idyllic country house, her aunt is busy with something dangerous and political. From the opening scene when Daisy arrives and her eye is scanned for identification, we are told that this story takes place in a slightly distant future where Britain is in some sort of turmoil. So with the aunt wrapped up in something potentially scary, Daisy is taken care of by her three cousins. The incredible Tom Holland ("The Impossible") plays Isaac, the bespectacled middle child who, at age 14, picks Daisy up at the airport in the family jeep. Self-sufficient, he tolerates Daisy’s self-absorbed moodiness while still attending to her needs as best he can. His younger sister Piper (Harley Bird) is an excitable redhead with a pet goat (she calls it a unicorn) who is thrilled to have another girl around the house. There’s also Joe (Danny Mcevoy), a friend of the family who is staying with them (and who appears to have been abused by his family.)

But more important is Eddie (George Mackay), the cousin closest to her age. When she first sees him he appears as if a sculpture, standing stoically with an eagle flapping its wings on his arm. Daisy is taken by him, and eventually falls in love. It’s important to note that both the characters of Daisy and Eddie have vague telepathic powers: Eddie can communicate with animals, while Daisy sometimes can look inside a person. Neither subplot is overly developed, which is rather nice. It’s just a part of who they are. It’s the same with Daisy’s psychological issues. In the book she was a self-harmer and had a serious eating disorder. Because it’s hard to address big issues in a short period of time, the filmmakers chose to give her more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The film also allows us to care about the pinings of a teenage heart without rolling our eyes.

This is all thrown into upheaval when alleged anarchists nuke London. Water has been poisoned. The power is out. And the danger of nuclear fallout is evident. Worse still, the cousin’s mother is away in Oslo and can’t find her way back. When the military arrive at the farmhouse, they separate the girls from the boys, sending the girls to a foster house many miles away and the boys to a military camp. But before they leave, Eddie frantically tells Daisy to find her way back home. So, soon after they are set up in their new home, she and Piper escape and begin the long journey back to the farmhouse.

What is impressive here is that MacDonald and screenwriters Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, and Tony Grisoni don’t shy away from the horrors of war. There are rapes, sudden deaths, and the real danger of malnutrition. Not every character we grow to love will survive, and that gives the story an unexpected potency. There are moments where the script veers toward the cheesy, and in less capable hands it might have been. What MacDonald does let us see is understandable because that’s how 16-year-old girls revere their feelings. It’s also the one thing she can hold on to that gives her the strength to get home.

In the original book, Eddie and Daisy are cousins. Here, a line seems to have been added at the beginning of the film that hears Daisy saying they are "step-cousins," probably unnecessary, but understandable to reduce the ick factor. (Hey, it’s no "Flowers in the Attic!") Regardless the cast handles the situations well and proves to be an accomplished group of young actors. Holland once again gives a confident and charming performance as young Isaac. Mackay is understandably swoony and distant as most of these love interest characters are, (although he is allowed some moments of torment toward the end of the film). Bird is fantastic as little Piper, who is put through the emotional and physical wringer and holds her own against Oscar nominee Ronan.

Ronan further proves her status as one of the best go-to actresses for her generation. From "Atonement" to "The Way Back" to "Hannah," she is a solid and believable performer. Even the dismal "Host" was given some sort of respectability because of her involvement. Here, she is put to the test and has quite the transformational character arc.

"How I Live Now" is not a perfect film, and some of the changes from the book might disturb the purists, but the level of sensitivity it gives to its subject makes big-budget money machine franchises like "The Hunger Games" look silly in comparison. This is a thinking-person’s teen romance, mostly because it makes the story more about the bigger picture and not just who is going to kiss whom first.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to ’Star Wars’ and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg. He can be seen in the flesh on the weekly PBS movie review series "Just Seen It."

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