After the success of the documentary Marley, Kevin Macdonald has returned with an unusual narrative film based on the award winning sci-fi novel How I Live Now. The original book came packaged with two different covers, one aimed at adults and one aimed at teenagers, but will the film adaptation split its audience in a similar way, limiting its success in the box office?
How I Live Now tells the story of stroppy American teenager Elizabeth (Saoirse Ronan) who has been sent to visit her cousins in the British countryside. As the summer progresses, Elizabeth warms to her new found family, but develops a particularly strong bond with Edmond (George MacKay), the oldest of the three children. However, when Elizabeth's aunt flies to Geneva to attend an emergency conference, nuclear war breaks out in the capital and the four kids are left to fend for themselves as World War III begins.
Macdonald may seem an unusual choice to adapt this hard hitting teen novel, but his skill as a director impresses from the outset. How I Live Now opens with an angsty credits scene that sets the tone as we meet Elizabeth for the first time, but we're soon drawn into the fun antics of the teenagers as they enjoy a summer in the country without supervision. Dressing up, swimming, fishing; it's all charmingly nostalgic, evoking the endless summers of childhood where everything seems exciting and new. Macdonald imbues every scene with a natural beauty that is almost ethereal, drawing upon his experience as a documentary film maker.
The first half of How I Live Now is not all fun and innocence though. Ominous undertones are threaded throughout as military planes fly overhead and political unrest is rife on the news. When the nuclear attack does arrive, the children only experience the explosion from a safe distance, creating an eerie sense of uncertainty for the characters and audience alike. We share the children's naive bewilderment as an unnatural 'snow' descends on their picnic and even here, Macdonald manages to find the beauty in everything, lingering on shots of the ash as it transforms the familiar English countryside into something alien and threatening.
The outbreak of World War III shifts the genre from a young adult drama into Children of Men for teens but despite this dramatic change in tone, How I Live Now still holds your interest. As Daisy and her youngest cousin Piper are separated from the others, their quest for survival forces them to grow up fast as they encounter hostile forces on their journey home. Ironically though, I felt that the second half of the film lacked the conflict that the backdrop of war should have created. Each dangerous moment that the girls faced either lacked any real threat or was over too quickly for the audience to ever become genuinely concerned. The episodic nature of the second half does thrill in parts, but is also far too disjointed in places. Whether this is due to the source material is hard to say, but it's unfortunate that the adapted screenplay didn't work harder to smooth over these rough edges.
Ronan is as great as ever in the lead role and goes some way towards making up for the travesty that was The Host but initially, I found her character extremely unlikable. Daisy is unnecessarily rude to her cousins when they first meet and her 'woe is me' attitude quickly grated on my nerves. To be fair though, I suppose that makes her quite a realistic teenager in a sense and it was a brave decision to retain her characters essence from the book.
Ronan isn't the only performer to impress though. In a cast of few adults, it's the children whose performances really make or break the film but luckily, each of them make their mark. After appearing in The Impossible last year, Tom Holland particularly stands out as younger cousin Isaac and Harley Bird is also impressive as the youngest of the three siblings. The cast of How I Live Now prove that child actors don't have to be as horrendously annoying as films like Jerry Maguire would have you believe.
Possibly the trickiest role of the film belongs to the oldest cousin Edmond, who is initially quite reserved and stoic but soon opens up as he grows closer to Daisy. Bizarrely though, Edmond appears to possess the ability to hear the thoughts of others, but it's barely touched upon and has no real impact on the events that unfold, other than making some cows just move from one side of a field to another. The script should have either addressed Edmond's telepathy more explicitly or just left it out altogether. Unfortunately, some things are bound to be lost in the translation from book to screen.
What really marks out How I Love Now as a unique entry into the young adult genre is the central relationship between Daisy and Edmond, which subverts the conventional teen romance with its incestuous nature. It was a brave choice to portray the couples love for each other in such a natural way and it set the film apart from other movies of its ilk. Twilight this ain't! Saying that though, I did find the ending of the film somewhat generic. Without spoiling anything, I can just imagine the producers whispering in Macdonald's ear, urging him to make it more mainstream.
How I Live Now is a film of contradictions. A teen romance between cousins. A narrative film directed by one of the worlds most celebrated documentary film makers. A British film that stars an Irish actress in an American role. None of these elements should match up yet somehow, the film does come together as a whole. Yes it's not perfect, but How I Live Now is a depressingly dark yet ultimately uplifting experience which should appeal to anyone who likes their teen films to be a little bit unusual, regardless of age or gender.