Three forces drive How I Live Now: Meg Rosoff, on whose award-winning young adult novel the film is based; Saoirse Ronan, who has managed to make watchable everything she’s been in, even Hanna; and Kevin Macdonald, whose track record as a director is spotty at best. (With three writers, it’s hard to know whom to most credit for the screenplay.) Macdonald is arguably best known for The Last King of Scotland, a mediocre film wrapped around a Forest Whitaker performance that made me want to use the kind of descriptive words (“blistering”) that make no sense but yet come closest to capture the force that came off the screen.
How I Live Now is a drastically different sort of film, though Ronan’s performance is one of her best yet. As Daisy, an American girl sent to live in the English countryside with cousins she’s never met, Ronan is all defense mechanisms and casual cruelty; you can see her refusing to see how her sharp words sting. Her internal monologue buzzes on the soundtrack as a string of overlapping advertising slogans, catchphrases, fears and curses, a disconcerting and effective choice.
England is a strange place, spotted with military vehicles and fighter jets, but the war is a distant reality to the kids, who do whatever they please; their mother, Daisy’s aunt, is somehow involved with the government, and they never see her.
Prickly but fragile, picky and compulsive, Daisy slowly settles in with her cousins: little, redheaded Piper (Harley Bird); competent middle child Isaac (Tom Holland, in Harry Potter glasses); and quiet, appealing Eddie (George MacKay). The sparks between Daisy and Eddie are mild at first, but their attraction grows as the war gets closer.
How I Live Now is purposefully vague about the war that closes in on its characters. There are good guys and terrorists, and that’s that. What else matters, when the power goes out and you’re living in a barn to avoid evacuation? The vagueness emphasizes the oblivious self-centeredness of the film’s teen characters, who remain mildly indifferent until the war intrudes, breaking them up. The girls are sent to live in “residential,” the boys to a farm.
The viciously tense last third of How I Live Now is concerned, on the surface, with how the kids come together again, but it’s really Daisy’s story. We never know any more than she does: Not where she is, when she and Piper set off to hike back to the farm; not what she will find in a harrowing scene at an abandoned farm. Having read Rosoff’s book is only faint comfort; Macdonald and his screenwriters maintain the tone of the novel while making the story their own — and Ronan’s. As her heavy eye makeup fades over the course of her trek, Daisy’s eyes become colder and brighter. When, halfway home, she finishes a hideous task, she emerges aged, changed but not broken. Intimate and large-scale at once, How I Live Now is a coming-of-age story, a war story, a love story and a story of survival — not just in the sense of staying alive, but of staying yourself, even as that self changes.
HOW I LIVE NOW: Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff. Cinematography, Franz Lustig. Editor, Jinx Godfrey. Music, Jon Hopkins. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay and Harley Bird. Magnolia Pictures, 2013. R. 101 minutes. Three and a half stars.