How I Live Now – Review

Incandescent Adolescent

Saoirse Ronan shines in a treasure trove of a tale set in a bleak, vaguely futuristic Britain at the outbreak of World War Three.

15, 101 min

***½

An adaptation of the Meg Rosoff young adult novel of the same name, How I Live Now, released in the UK last year but only reaching France now, is a strange beast to pin down. As soon as the title splatters across the screen in a blood-red, Chamber-of-Secrets-esque scrawl, we know we’re in for something singular that pulls no punches. With elements of fairy-tale romance, strangely jarring realism and idyllic British settings, it’s an intriguing cocktail, one which draws you in and becomes increasingly bleaker as it goes along.

The story centres on glum, reserved American teenager Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), who is sent over from New York to the English countryside to spend the summer with her oh-so-English cousins. She is rude, antisocial, and for some reason has renounced her birth name of Elizabeth for her new moniker. You can imagine. But then something big goes down – literally – and everything changes. A nuclear disaster brings about World War Three, and the group’s peaceful existence turns to chaos, just as Daisy’s frosty façade begins to melt away and she starts falling for dashing cousin Eddie (George MacKay).

Director Kevin Macdonald doesn’t shy away from the harrowing aspects of the story, and for something classified as ‘Young Adult’, it is at times rather terrifying. There is blood and tears, and several shocking things happen – in previous films of this genre, they might have been glossed over. Not here. Here, they linger for a disturbingly long time onscreen, plunging you directly into the action. The film seems to be set on showing life as it would be, sometimes dark and unforgiving, and not on showing life as it would usually be in a film, and it’s hard not to admire how it sticks so steadfastly to its guns throughout. This seems to mostly involve wrong-footing the audience and shocking them into submission, though in an inexplicably good way.

It goes without saying that, once again, Ronan proves what a reliably magnetic screen presence she is. At once brash and vulnerable, driven by a set of self-help mantras that jostle for room in her head, she is the troubled adolescent brought to vivid life. So in a way, this film is also as much about the horrors of growing up as it is about the horrors of war. Sometimes it is even implied that they are much the same.

And despite the emphasis on rural living and old-fashioned Englishness, there’s a strange nod to the fact that this may in fact be set a little in the future (or perhaps that’s just my interpretation). Eddie appears, at times, to be able to hear Daisy’s mess of crazy thoughts, and Daisy in turn has dreams about Eddie, implying that some sort of telepathy is now possible. Just conjecture on my part, perhaps, but another facet to this already engrossing film.

Accompanied by an achingly beautiful, well-chosen soundtrack, including a stand-out song from Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes, How I Live Now is propelled on its way, an elusive combination of different parts that I certainly wasn’t expecting on plonking myself down in my seat. With its nods to both contemporary society and the way we tick (generally, not just teenagers), this might just be a growing-up film that bucks the trend by being for grown-ups too.

It’s well-realised, the performances are naturalistic, and there’s more than enough going on below the surface to satisfy even the hardiest, pickiest cinephile. Powered forward by a spiky, difficult, yet ultimately likeable heroine, and grounded by gritty realism and some very emotional, unexpected plot twists, How I Live Now reads as a manual for navigating the thorny, knotty forests of adolescence, but also of life. The message, at its heart, is disarmingly simple – yes, there may be darkness in people, but so long as you have family, and love, you will find a way back. All things heal with time, and so this film proves.

So it may give in to cliché and Young Adult stereotypes towards the end, but when it has been such a twisty, stomach-churning ride, I think it is most likely deserved. Boasting frightening, but also heartwarming truths about us, and what we do to get by in troubling times, this is perhaps a timely tonic of a film – see it for the acting, the unflinching narrative, and the fact that England does actually look rather gorgeous in it.

One thing’s for certain – give it a watch and it’ll stick with you. It’s a peculiar, yet beautiful wonder of a film.

Alex Nicholson

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