How I Live Now is a Scottish/British/American film (there’s some Welsh in there too) set in modern-day rural Britain. Part coming of age drama, part war film, it revolves mainly around Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an American teenager, with deep anxiety and compulsive disorders, who is sent to live with her cousins in England, Isaac, Piper and Eddie. Initially very tight-lipped and introverted, she shrugs off her cousins attempts to engage with her, the only person she really is interested in, is Eddie. Shortly after her arrival, terrorists unleash nuclear war in Britain, leaving it in a sort of desolate, wasteland, no electricity, the water poisoned. The cousins get split up, boys going to one camp, girls to a ‘safehouse’, much to Daisy’s despair at losing Eddie, who the previous night, slept together. Intent on finding each other again, the girls set off to find their family.
How I Live Now may well be set in a violent, lawless war-torn Britain, but the real focus here is on familial bonds, between brothers and sisters, elders and children, cousins and in one case, overlapping into romance. I am probably going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but How I Live Now is at the more arty-indie side of the teen-genre spectrum (yes, that spectrum does include things like Twilight but hear me out). It does well to check pretty much every teenage girl box, awful anxiety, reluctance to change, fear of the unknown, sexual anxiety, the feeling of abandonment, but what makes How I Live Now different to its big budget counterparts, is that it doesn’t treat its audience like the teenagers it’s depicting. It has a certain degree of intelligence and maturity about it. In the same way that Twilight examines sexuality in teenagers with a (albeit not very realistic portrayal) supernatural background, How I Live Now does it with something altogether more recognisable, war and terrorism.
The true horror of the war is realised during Daisy and Piper’s search for Isaac and Eddie, a gruesome discovery of the boys of the war, hits home, stirring Daisy’s innate strength and maternal instinct to protect her kid-cousin. The character of Daisy is where How I Live Now comes undone at times. I think there is too much focus on Daisy and her interpretation of the events around her, leading her character and some of her choices to be confused and seemingly without motive. The filmmakers have tried to make Daisy too personable, she’s a complex character, and unfortunately the film isn’t big enough to accommodate her. Though increasing her screen time wouldn’t necessarily make us care for her more. Daisy’s traits and characterisations could have been trimmed down more, made more coherent and fluid. To be honest, I might be mistaken in thinking, that 15-year-old girls are pretty surly and uncooperative at the best of times, we definitely don’t need a discourse on this (experience being, I was once a 15-year-old girl, and I was a bit of a pig to people, as most 15-year-old girls are). There was definitely room to discount this element of her character. Having said that, Ronan, as expected plays the part with ease. Off the back of Hanna, we’re kind of used to seeing her in these cold, troubled roles, which she does so well.
One of the things which strikes me about the film is the lack of action, or even real pivotal plot moments. In fact, to put it bluntly, the stuff that should be exciting and engaging, the war stuff, isn’t, and the stuff which would normally provide filler and ‘just there for screen time’ is the most satisfying element of this film. The interactions between the kids is uncut, and seems effortlessly natural and unchoreographed. The relationship between them, cousins, is one that is actually rarely given much screen time in cinema. I know that I am close to a lot of my cousins (I have so many, I couldn’t even put a figure to it!) and actually they are complex relationships. You start off as friends, then you become family. There isn’t the same familial bond as siblings, it extends over and above friendship, but not quite as much as family, and actually this relationship is interesting to explore in How I Live Now. Particularly as it crosses the ‘not-taboo-but-frowned-upon’ incestual relationship between cousins. Although this is where the war story comes into play, culminating in a ‘full circle’ story. In the lawlessness of war and violence, relationships transcend gradings of family, friends, lovers, siblings, and become perhaps the most important part of your existence, even more importantly, your ability to survive.
There is nothing clean-cut, resolute or glossy about How I Live Now, in fact the very opposite, its been made to look a bit hodgepodge, a bit scattered and a bit rough, a noticeable lack of special effects or massive (unnecessary) explosions. After all, the story it’s presenting is far from simple. It’s not necessarily supposed to be enjoyable, or genre defining, or revolutionary. It is a story which has been told countless times before, and will probably be told many times again, but in the lineage of coming of age stories, it’s probably one of the better ones.
How I Live Now – review – Natasha Harmer at Films and Things
How I Live Now – review – Blood and Guts for Grownups
How I Live Now, film review: A very exciting, but sad love story. – Middlesex Journalism
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