How I Live Now (2013) / Drama-War
MPAA Rated: R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird, Tom Holland, Danny McEvoy, Anna Chancellor
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenplay: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, Penelope Skinner (based on the novel by Meg Rosoff)
Review published November 11, 2013
How I Live Now is an adaptation of the award-winning novel from 2004 by Meg Rosoff, which took home the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize (awarded from the British newspaper, "The Guardian") and the Michael L. Printz Award (from the American Library Association) for young-adult literature. With the exception of the protagonists of this piece being minors, there's not too much about the film adaptation that would suggest it is meant for kids, as the language, mild sexuality and some harsh scenes of war (including the suggestions of mass raping and murder of children) and its aftermath are enough to have earned it an R rating in the United States, putting it mostly out of range of the intended audience of the book.
Kevin Macdonald (The Eagle, State of Play) directs this adaptation that had no less than three screenwriters' hands on it, which may have resulted in a very confused narrative. It certainly plays half of the time as a coming-of-age drama with war elements, but in the mix we also find rebel-punk angst, teen romance, quirky comedy, and, perhaps most oddly, a fantasy element involving telepathic connections between characters. In short, it's too uneven to drive home any points, leaving characters we're supposed to like feeling distant and any subtext on the nature of life and war seeming just as ponderous.
The storyline, such as it is, involves an American girl (Ronan, Hanna) named Elizabeth (who goes by 'Daisy'), being dumped off with her cousins on a farm in the rural UK during what appears to be some sort of massive war (why a father would leave a child in a country in the verge of imminent catastrophe is never adequately explained). She's rebellious and resistant to her extended family's attempts to communicate with her, but begins to soften when she meets the dreamy oldest boy, Edmond (MacKay, Defiance), and develops a bit of an incestuous crush, which seems to be reciprocated. Meanwhile, the war spreads out over the land and threatens to overtake even their small farm, bursting the only bubble of comfort they've all felt in their lives.
Perhaps the one facet that feels like a story for teens is the nature of the romance between Daisy and Edmond, with the latter yet another one of those idealized males you find only in love stories aimed toward a female audience, where the man has a cute smile, says little, and acts brave, particularly when it comes to her. That he also has the ability to read her mind makes him even more appealing, as he is now the only person who can truly understand her and the turmoil she has going on inside her head. That's all well and good, even if it is an odd narrative choice, save for the problem that Ronan is just off of another movie with a mind-reading hook in which she falls for the same type of farm boy, in the adaptation of the Stephanie Meyer novel, The Host.
But before we finally settle in to all of this, the war is soon upon them, and soon the lovers are separated by fate, trying desperately to find each other again. It's in this hand-off from one tone to another where Macdonald fumbles the ball, as he hasn't given us enough of an emotional connection between the characters in order to feel for their plight, or even care about Daisy's newfound romance, before they're all thrust into danger and having to propel themselves forward out of a sense of love that we feel is shallow and, in a real world sense, would likely have been forgotten in the face of the death and destruction that surrounds them. With hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people dead or dying around them, why should we care a lick about whether Daisy finds her dreamboat again?
We have next to no interest in the war at hand, which is intentionally given the sketchiest of set-ups, so when we're left with following characters we care little about struggling to survive, it becomes evident in our apathy that the film fails because it built up cute character touches but little we can connect with. Daisy is full of rage and turmoil inside, but we're barely given much of a clue as to the source of this angst, save for a mention of a deceased mother and a father she thinks is trying to abandon her. Despite hearing her thoughts, which are so jumbled together so as to be unintelligible, we know very little about what makes her tick.
All of this leads up to a climax that lacks any emotional grip. How I Live Now is a jumble of interesting elements that don't come together, resulting in a sporadically interesting, but mostly odd film. Perhaps readers of the book, who will come into the film with a more fleshed-out sense of the characters, will be more invested, but for those who are coming in with a blank slate, you'll find that slate fairly empty coming out of it as well.
©2013 Vince Leo