Movie Review: 'How I Live Now' (2013)

A devastating piece of overlooked cinema, 2013’s ‘How I Live Now’ stars Saoirse Ronan as a teen with a flair for punk rock fashion and a bad attitude. Daisy (Ronan) is a 15-year-old with a loud internal voice, whose father has pretty much abandoned her into the care of her English aunt, despite the world being on the verge of all-out war.

Because of this, you can readily sympathize with her jaded disposition, though she takes it out on all the wrong people. When Daisy arrives in England, she is greeted by her precocious cousin Isaac (Tom Holland), who later introduces her to his siblings, Piper (Harley Bird) and Eddie (George Mackay).

This is where things take a strange turn. Daisy is immediately taken with Eddie…her eldest cousin; but more on that later. Un-chaperoned, the kids are pretty much left to their own devices. Which means the house is a mess and they spend most of their time playing outdoors. Then one day, their idyllically settled existence is forever shattered when World War III breaks out; stealing their innocence and plunging them into a desperate bid for survival. 

Over the course of the last 5 years, audiences have been hit over the head with the theme of young people struggling to survive a dystopian aftermath. Many times, the results have been flooded in a deluge of dreamy, high-tech futurism. In this adaptation of Meg Rossoff’s novel of the same name, you will find none of that.

‘How I Live Now’ is an unvarnished, sad, and searing film, that leaves a haunting heaviness in its wake. How this movie slipped beneath the radar in 2013 is anyone’s guess. It is raw and unseemly, violent and emotionally exhausting. It is also magnificently impactful in how it un-romantically displays the horrendous toll of war and the horror of a child having to experience it firsthand.

[Image by Cowboy Films, Passion Pictures, Film4, E1 Films]
Director Kevin Macdonald guides his young cast through a heartrending story that never misses a beat of human emotion. From fear to anger and everything in-between and beyond, there is no stone left unturned. Saoirse Ronan, who made an incredible case for why she is one of the best actresses of her generation in 2015’s ‘Brooklyn’, again proves how she was building a strong case before then.

On paper, Daisy is not a likable character and in lesser hands, she would have been unwatchable but Ronan masters the intricate balance between portraying Daisy as a jerk and a hard-nosed heroine. She makes Daisy compelling to watch, root for, and shake your head at.

One of her greatest strengths as an actress gets a major showcase here. Few of her peers can portray a moment of unadulterated grief like Ronan. The internal twist of sorrow and pain she conveys is so palatable, you not only grieve with the characters’ she plays but for them. As Daisy, Ronan is impeccable, leading this tale of tragedy and survival with as much gravitas as she has in movies both before and since.

Supporting Ronan is a particularly impressive performance from new Spider-Man, Tom Holland. In his brief turn, he makes an indelibly, endearing mark that plays into a particularly hitting scene, later on. George Mackay brings a credible sensitivity to his role as the down-to-earth Eddie and Harley Bird gives a performance beyond her years as the family’s youngest member.

In all of its direness, the movie hinges on a strange romantic interlude between its central duo, Eddie and Daisy. While it is usually the case for end-of-the-world scenarios to feature the awkward inclusion of relatives finding a last resort love match, no war has broken out when Eddie and Daisy’s attraction to each other manifests and there is no explanation given for why neither finds their coupling, even a tad taboo to pursue.

The sweet chemistry between Ronan and Mackay almost makes you forgive the odd plot point, although that is difficult to do when characters constantly remind us of it.

For all of 'The Hunger Games'' ridiculously overwrought drama, ‘How I Live Now’ brings a human angle to all of its aching insights. This is a movie that truly grapples with its subject matter in a way that embeds itself into its audience.

It is not about glorifying children soldiers or glamorizing the atrocity of war. Calling to mind Russell Crowe’s exceptional film ‘The Water Diviner,’ ‘How I Live Now’ similarly depicts war as an unforgiving battlefield that in an ideal world, no one should have to walk through. Rating: 8/10

[Featured Image by Cowboy Films, Passion Pictures, Film4, E1 Films] 

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