Director Kevin McDonald (”The Last King of Scotland”) wields a very interesting aesthetic right off the bat in his tale of teens at war, but How I Live Now can’t escape the feeling of being a mash-up of a hundred other stories you’ve seen before.
We start with a sunburned, handheld feel with angst thrash music overlaid with titles that look like shopworn stencils, meeting a grungily-dressed girl, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) getting off a plane and travelling through what seems to be a jittery, over-secured UK with armed soldiers and checkpoints everywhere.
A moody, sour little ingrate who treats everyone with contempt – starting with the cousin who collects her, Isaac (Tom Holland), it’s obvious Daisy doesn’t want to be there. He drives her to her new home in the English country where she meets her other cousins, cute Piper (Harley Bird) and the dreamy Eddie (George McKay), and despite her heart being aflutter by the frequently shirtless Eddie, Daisy is still a brat.
Plagued by a confused and critical inner voice we hear as a voiceover yelling everything from profane self-criticism to headlines torn straight from a teenage fashion magazine at her, Daisy’s also labouring under the delusion that her father – who sent her to live with family in England – wants her when the opposite is obvious.
The kids gradually bring Daisy around with their ceaseless good nature and treks to the local swimming hole, and she’s already fallen in love with Eddie, ”Twilight” style (although not sidestepping the natural result of teenagers falling in love). It’s when the second act begins you’re reminded of the premise of Tomorrow When the War Began mixed in with the plucky childhood pragmatism of The Famous Five in short order.
Daisy’s little-seen Aunt has already jetted off to Geneva for urgent peace talks after talking in hushed tones on the phone over a spreadsheet entitled ‘Europe: projected deaths’. The sense of impending doom is already leaden when a nuclear blast takes out London in an inventive scene showing the shock wave passing the children in their rural idyll. After that, the borrowed plots kick into high gear.
With power, the radio and TV and everything else off, the kids are living in fearful but peaceful isolation before the army arrives to split them up by force. They take the boys to one base and Daisy and Piper to another, where they live with a foster family and spend their days going through rotting fruit and vegetables to feed a now-starving population.
Separated from her beloved Eddie, Daisy decides to take Piper and escape and walk all the way back home (hoping the boys are doing the same), and suddenly ”How I Live Now” reminiscent of everything from ”Rabbit Proof Fence” to ”Blinky Bill”.
Unlike ”Twilight”, it doesn’t pull any punches for young audiences, with at least one shocking death pulling rug right out from under you. But it’s hard to relate to the characters unless you’re in their age group, so it can’t really be anything but another young adult dystopian quest movie.
For that reason the more adult scenes of Eddie and Daisy consummating their attraction, the sudden death mentioned above and a scene of Daisy fighting murderously back against two would-be attackers seem out of place.
It also doesn’t help that Daisy herself is so unlikeable for so much of the movie. You’re almost glad when she really suffers so the voices in her head finally shut up about her thighs and she has to actually grow up.
Ronan is as good as she always is – Macdonald has captured her at a very special time on the cusp between childhood and womanhood – and the bleak, very English-style war drama and teen romance aspects are both fine. They just never comfortably coexist.