By Daniel Barnes
This barely released drama from The Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald is an odd-duck hybrid of a teenage summer romance and an apocalyptic nightmare. How I Live Now has some impressive ambitions, but mostly it comes off like a Nicolas Sparks rewrite of Red Dawn.
The incredibly talented Welsh actress Saoirse Ronan does a great American accent as Daisy, a petulant New York teen shipped off by her neglectful father to live with cousins in England. Daisy is a stereotypically narcissistic adolescent, so distracted by her angst that she barely notices World War III erupting all around her. Early in the film, we see stricken tourists watching Paris burn on an airport TV, which Daisy barely glances at before turning back to her phone.
Daisy’s aunt is an “expert in loony extremists,” with some pretty ominous-looking bar graphs on her desktop screen, and weak assurances for Daisy that everything will be OK. For the first third of How I Live Now, Daisy is pouty and rude to her free-spirited cousins, and the script has to rush through an entire emerging-from-her-shell-and-finding-first-love story arc before the bomb drops at the end of act one. MacDonald tries to accelerate the character development by occasionally letting us hear Daisy’s thoughts, broadcasting them like an anxious sonic blur, but it feels like a cheap trick.
Eddie (Tom Holland) is Daisy’s dreamy first cousin, and the catalyst for her emergence, a Tiger Beat fantasy boy who gets lit in shades of shirtless bronze. Eddie is Edward Cullen from Twilight in human form – he tames falcons, speaks to animals, can seemingly read Daisy’s mind, and even hastily sucks her blood when she cuts her finger on a fence. How I Live Now has a script credited to four writers, and a silly fabrication like Eddie is where you sense an excess of fingerprints.
Soon enough, an assemblage of global terrorists strikes London, detonating a nuclear bomb first felt in the English countryside as a rush of wind, followed by a loud crack and a drizzle of white ash. Separated from the aunt, Daisy and the cousins initially live in a state of unsupervised bliss, and she even consummates her love with Eddie, which leads to my favorite exchange:
-Daisy (shivering): “We can’t.”
-Eddie (condescending): “More rules?”
Against incest, you mean? Anyway, soldiers arrive to separate the girls from the boys, and the film becomes one long slog to get the young lovers back together. Unfortunately, the film’s early scenes don’t earn it the right to get as gruesome as it does (including a scene where Daisy picks through a pile of child corpses) without feeling like rank exploitation.
It’s not a worthless movie, and there are some exciting but mostly underdeveloped ideas, including a militarized “safe zone” located in a rural suburb. Still, tying the developing maturity of a privileged teen to her role dodging rapists in a war zone requires a remarkable sense of nuance as yet unavailable to MacDonald. If there is a message in How I Live Now, it’s that what these punk kids today need is a good old-fashioned war, preferably thermonuclear.