How I Live Now suggests Cormac McCarthy, but without the literary weight. More specifically, it’s a bit like The Road, in which some Bad Thing has happened, human society has changed, and children are left alone to cope.
Our American Cousin
In How I Live Now, director Kevin Macdonald and the large screenwriting team, working from a novel by Meg Rosoff, treat the Bad Thing as a plot point, and not just a setting. Theirs starts before the ... let’s call it a “war,” when Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a sullen teen whose worst problems are parents who seem occupied with other things than raising their daughter. She arrives in rural England to live with some cousins, one older, Edmond (George MacKay), and two younger, Piper and Isaac (Harley Bird and Tom Holland).
R for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality
Daisy doesn’t do much to try to fit in. She turns down some proffered chocolate and complains that “cheese is gross and it’s all they have.” She seems to think the farm is invested with cooties and doesn’t like the look of those menacing cows.
When her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) flies to Geneva for some meeting of global importance, Daisy softens, a little. When her cousins go swimming in the creek she reluctantly agrees. “I’ll be attending, not participating.”
And then it starts snowing. In summer. Ashes. We don’t know what happened because neither does Daisy. Electronics have stopped working. And being rural, they’re not exactly connected to human flows of news. They suspect the worst, and in the meantime they make do with water from the creek, food from the pantry, and fresh rabbits and fish.
Things get worse. There is an eviction notice, a visit from the U.S. Consulate, and eventually the appearance of Martial law, even on their little farm. I won’t say more since that’s half the fun of the movie, assuming you like a good social-collapse scare.
Ronan Saves the Day
I liked How I Live Now, but you probably have to chalk it up to two personal quirks. I love rural England, I could stare at it all day; and what scares me more than horror films are stories of social collapse.
Yet still I wish How I Live Now had something more epic about it, or a more powerful strongest scene. As it is, the movie is almost low key, considering the genre. Maybe a stronger theme would have helped tie all the disparate parts together, but the film has a full allotment of credited screenwriters, which always raises red flags.
Luckily, Ronan is able to supply the film with an emotional arc in her tough and sympathetic performance. I kept thinking of her strong character in another futuristic thriller, Hanna, a cartoonish version of a girl surviving without adults in an world she doesn’t understand.
The ending to How I Live Now helps the film feel complete. Ronan is excellent in conveying that there is no going back, that things have irreversibly changed, without being hopeless about it.