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How I Live Now

2013 | 101 min | R | 1.85:1

How I Live Now


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Theatrical release date

 08 November, 2013
 04 October, 2013

Country of origin

 United Kingdom

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Screenshots from How I Live Now Blu-ray

How I Live Now Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, October 24, 2013

Reviewed at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival

“How I Live Now” has no idea what type of movie it wants to be, so it becomes them all. A scattered, meaningless war drama, the film comes from director Kevin Macdonald, who’s made some impressive features (“One Day in September,” “The Last King of Scotland”) and some duds (“The Eagle”). He’s an interesting helmer who normally has a vision for his efforts, but this one eludes him, to a degree where it begins to feel more like punishment than suspense. “How I Live Now” isn’t a mess, but it’s indirect, irritatingly so, wasting a tempting premise on half-baked emotions and aimless moments of distress that should be far more penetrating than they actually are.

A medicated New York City teenager traveling to rural England to live with her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) and her cousins, young Piper (Harley Bird), shy Edmond (George McKay), and wiseacre Isaac (Tom Holland), Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is lost in her own head, angry with life. Unwilling to participate in the summertime fun, Daisy is gently coaxed into action by Edmond, with the pair developing feelings for each other. When a nuclear bomb is detonated in London, chaos erupts around the country, leaving the children to fend for themselves in the middle of nowhere. When the army arrives to separate the sexes for work camps and military duty, Daisy pledges to find Edmond, soon sent to live with Piper in a foster home, growing more miserable by the day. Deciding to escape, Daisy take Piper across the country on a treacherous journey filled with dead ends and menacing outsiders, hoping to return home and find Edmond waiting for her.

“How I Live Now” is adapted from a 2004 book by Meg Rosoff, a work of teen fiction that attempted to merge wartime misery with the concerns of a teenage girl falling in love for the first time. Macdonald is quite skilled with introductions, presenting Daisy as a walking headache with raccoon eyes, drowning in her thoughts as she attempts distance and cynicism to deflect outside interest in her well-being, a habit honed while neglected by her father. Hard and short-tempered, Daisy is shoved into a countryside kingdom ruled by her cousins, who embark on adventures with nature, taught to live with the land as they basically raise themselves -- a peaceful existence alien to Daisy, who habitually rejects new experiences for self-preservation purposes. The early scenes of “How I Live Now” contain all the necessary beats of discovery, while disorientation is achieved through glimpses of the war machine gearing up with deafening jet flyovers and tight airport security measures. It’s a puzzle that’s compelling in its earliest stages, watching Daisy warm up to her situation, while the world heads toward an unidentified conflict.

The turn toward endless love is abrupt, even though Daisy’s psychological makeup hints at immediate adherence to anyone or anything that shows interest. Still, the gluey bond of tenderness is hurried along in “How I Live Now,” finding Daisy and Edmond rushing into sex and commitment, barely taking a moment to breathe before the bomb separates the lovers. It’s the first crack in what becomes a splintered viewing experience.

The second half of the film concerns the birth of Daisy’s survival instinct, newly energized by romance and pledges of eternal devotion, watching the character work herself into a stupor sorting rotting vegetables at a work camp, her spirit tormented by nightmarish images of her one and only. Macdonald’s initial elusiveness becomes an anchor on the movie, with necessary details limited to preserve a mystery that’s only of interest to the production. Hand-holding isn’t necessary, but “How I Live Now” transforms into a feature comprised entirely of surfaces, depending on Ronan’s competent work to give nothingness meaning. She’s good but not that good, requiring a director willing to scatter details around the picture to invite continuing interest in the unfolding drama.

This is a dark film as well. Daisy and Piper’s odyssey crosses dangerous terrain, with the pair stumbling on a military camp filled with bodies, a rape outpost where soldiers have their way with captives, and a showdown where Daisy is forced to shoot a pair of predators who’ve threatened Piper. There’s death and suffering galore in “How I Live Now,” just nothing beyond the horror, making select moments register with unwarranted aggression. Tonal befuddlement carries to the conclusion of the feature, which offers not exactly a happy ending, but one hinting at a mental equilibrium the rest of the effort goes out of its way to deny. “How I Live Now” is coarse and hostile, but rarely meaningful, often playing like a production that only skimmed its source material, trying to summarize feelings and trauma that require extensive screen time to triumphantly manage.

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay (I), Tom Holland (X)
Director: Kevin Macdonald

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