‘How I Live Now’ is a war between grim realism and Young Adult cheese

Saoirse Ronan plays an angry teen living with war in "How I Live Now." Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Saoirse Ronan plays an angry teen living with war in “How I Live Now.”
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

‘How I Live Now’
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Meg Rosoff’s book “How I Live Now,” now a grungy British movie, is generally classified under Young Adult, largely because it fits the genre in so many ways. Its hero — an angry, pierced American teen who nonetheless goes by Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) — finds herself trapped in rural England right in time for a never specifically defined World War. The country becomes a cruel military state, with the army trying to maintain order and only creating chaos and bloodshed. Things, of course, get really, truly hairy — much more than in typical YA fare, where even the presence of actual supernatural monsters never completely ruins the lovey-dovey bliss. Here, people die, and if they don’t, they are legitimately traumatized.

But the YA elements — young women tamed by strapping young men with six-pack abs and pretty hair; moony looks caught in step-printed slo-mo — never entirely go away. Much like the vampire vs. werewolf action in the “Twilight” movies, there’s a war here between grim realism and starry-eyed love. For the record, grim realism dominates: the split is about 75-25. And much of the YA elements are in its first half, when Daisy arrives from America to stay with her rural England cousins. She’s cold to everyone, albeit somewhat less cold to token babe Eddie (George MacKay), who’s luckily not that close a cousin.

At first they ignore the horror, even when a nuclear bomb goes off in London and all electricity cuts out. They enjoy a Nick Drake-backed montage as they live off the land, Daisy’s face jewelry and pissed-off mascara symbolically coming off. But the good times can’t last, and “How I Live Now” deserves credit for getting pretty close to the brink (and for including actual sex and lots of swearing).

The inspiration is clearly “Children of Men,” but director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) isn’t the showman that Alfonso Cuaron is, nor is he trying to be. The film remains grounded, and when boys are coldly separated from girls there’s the feeling that they may never reunite.

But that feeling only lasts a few seconds. The YA elements serve to reassure us that, even if things don’t work out perfectly, they won’t be completely hopeless. It does get darker than assumed, and that’s admirable. But it’s always obvious there’s a net to save us from a free fall.


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