How I Live Now is an adaptation of the 2004 Meg Rosoff young adult novel of the same name centering on a young American transplant in Britain who struggles to return home in the midst of the outbreak of a war that’s spurred on by a nuclear explosion in London. It’s directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), written by Tony Grisoni (Tideland), Jeremy Brock (The Eagle) and Penelope Skinner and stars Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland (The Impossible), Anna Chancellor (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), George MacKay (Defiance), Harley Bird, Corey Johnson and Sabrina Dickens. Ronan is Daisy, a moody but willful teen who is sent to visit her cousins (technically step-cousins, just so there’s no “ewww factor” later when she hooks up with cousin Eddie) against her wishes by her father for the summer. Daisy’s the typical modern teen girl dealing with a situation over which she has no control and doesn’t want: she’s passive aggressive bitchy to her younger British cousins, Isaac, 14 (Holland), and Piper, 8-ish (Bird). Of course, that pseudo hostility disappears when she’s in the presence of cousin Eddie (MacKay), who is introverted but dreamy and sensitive (he nurtured a hawk with a broken wing back to health for cripes sake).
Though the pastoral cottage in the picturesque English countryside where they live ain’t her scene (she’s a New Yorker), Daisy nonetheless eventually warms to her new family and falls headlong for Eddie. They spend their days swimming in the local watering hole and enjoying the serenity of their surroundings, especially since the kids’ mother and Daisy’s Aunt Penn (Chancellor), who’s a U.N. honcho, is frequently gone. It’s via Penn’s brief phone discussions and TV news reports that we learn that Britain is heading for the crapper as the threat of war is escalating. That threat is fully realized when a distant nuclear explosion, likely the work of anarchists, levels London and produces an eerie snowstorm of ash. Still, the cottage is far enough from London that there’s no threat from radiation and the children try to make the best of the situation until Penn returns, if at all.
However, a representative of the American consulate in Scotland arrives with travel papers for Daisy, signalling a recall of American citizens from England and a mass evacuation of the locals as the war will soon encroach on their homestead. But Daisy is determined to stay with Eddie, who is equally determined that come what may, the family will not leave their home. They’re both soon disabused of those notions when the British army arrives and forcefully splits up the boys and girls, Isaac and Eddie to be drafted into the army, and Daisy and Piper conscripted into being farm laborers with young neighbor, Joe (McAvoy). Before they’re separated, Eddie tells Daisy that no matter what, they have to escape and return to each other back at the cottage.
Daisy and Piper are taken to stay at the home of an Army Major and his wife, whose son is off to war. Daisy immediately begins taking supplies on the sly until finally they sneak off in the night, just as enemy combatants overrun their village. They spend most of the second half of the film hiking through the woods, avoiding enemy soldiers, and making a terrible discovery, which lends doubt to whether or not Eddie and Isaac will be waiting for them should they successfully make their way back home. In the meantime, Daisy and Piper have brushes with danger as they trek homeward, including hiding while a woman is being brutally raped by the enemy, and being chased by two men that have decidedly bad intentions toward them. All the while, Daisy dreams of Eddie, but is fearful of what she’ll find if their journey to return home is successful.
Ronan is steadfast and credible as the determined Daisy, even though there are few surprises to her character. Once you know what type of girl Daisy is, you know she’s going to proceed with her goal no matter what, and no obstacle, internal nor external is going to stop her. The only thing off about her is the jumbled internal monologue she frequently has, a byproduct of the novel no doubt. Ronan has to anchor the majority of the movie alone as the focus shifts from the children’s peaceful home life to the perilous journey to return to it. MacKay will no doubt set a tween female heart or two aflutter as the quiet but also willful Eddie. Holland and Bird are fine as siblings Isaac and Piper, credit going to Bird for walking the line of charming but not annoying little girl.
MacDonald shoots a damn lovely pic, with the British countryside dominating throughout. He also makes a couple of story choices that could have gone either way between good or bad, but fortunately work out in his favor when it comes to the nebulousness of the enemy, and eschewing a possible dual storyline of Daisy and Eddie trying to find their way back to each other. In the case of the former, it’s not necessarily important who the enemy are. Considering the wooded setting and the facelessness of the enemy, they almost take on the unseen Bambi role of Man in general, were it not for the two nobs who chase Daisy and Piper in one scene. Also, MacDonald made the choice to just focus on Daisy and Piper’s journey, rather than splitting the narrative. A couple of key occurrences encompass Eddie’s and Isaac’s unseen story, and that lends a speediness to the story that easily could have been lost otherwise.
The danger is a little sparse, but although there aren’t a lot of runs-in with the enemy, their presence and the consequences of their presence are definitely felt. And in one climactic sequence involving the two men chasing Daisy and Piper, shit definitely gets real. There are one or two plot elements (the fate of a character and the need for water tablets) that don’t really go anywhere, but those are minor quibbles. How I Live Now is a solid effort for Ronan and MacDonald, although ultimately not being the match of their previous works like Hanna and Last King of Scotland respectively. Still, it has appeal that should transcend just The Hunger Games crowd easily enough.
Magnolia Pictures will release How I Live Now in theaters and on VOD November 8.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars