How I Live Now Dir. Kevin Macdonald

[Magnolia Pictures; 2013]

Styles: apocalyptic bildungsroman, war, drama
Others: 28 Days Later, The Last King of Scotland, A Very Long Engagement

Adapted from Meg Rosoff’s 2004 young-adult novel of the same name, How I Live Now is a fairly boilerplate coming-of-age story with an added wrinkle due to its setting. As our at-first bratty protagonist begins to develop character and compassion, pretty much the entirety of modern society is collapsing around her due to a truly horrendous military catastrophe. Concerning the rude awakening of a selfish and stubborn American teenager who is forced to confront the reality of other people in one of the most fantastic ways possible, Kevin Macdonald’s latest directorial effort isn’t quite sure exactly what it’s about. While the film manages some stunning and deeply engaging moments of beauty, it is ultimately encumbered by the roteness of its plot and expository sequences that drag on for far too long.

Daisy, played remarkably well by Saoirse Ronan, opens the movie with a well shot and excellently pieced together transatlantic flight. Wrapped up tight in an iPod cocoon, obviously not having a great time, Daisy’s disdain for just about everything around her is palpable and well established by the time she touches down in England. Greeted by her estranged fourteen-year-old cousin at the baggage carousel, we’re further treated to just how turned inward young Daisy is, and how particular she is about how people address her. The severity of her misanthropy begs the question as to whether it’s being laid on so thick as to serve as a juxtaposition for more selfless behavior later on (it is), and the heavy handedness of the early part of this movie is carried on more or less throughout its remainder.

Daisy believes that the reason for her extended trip to the British countryside stems mainly from her father’s desire to be rid of her for a while. Viewing her hosts as simple-minded country people without anything of interest to share with her, Daisy’s retreat inwards becomes manifest by means of some pretty tepid scenes of the young lady trying to shut out a multitude of voices in her head, critiquing just about everything about herself, from her intellect to her body image. It’s obvious this adolescent is dealing with a lot of self doubt, but these overwrought and melodramatic sequences only detract from the more nuanced performance Ronan eventually musters from some pretty dull source material. The circumstances that lead to her long and drawn-out journey back to the country home she once despised are predictable, and the way they’re portrayed even more so. Macdonald pulls off some tense moments and beautifully captured shots of rolling, bucolic English hills, but doesn’t manage to build much empathy for his principal character.

There’s so much potential in How I Live Now, such a rich banquet of striking ideas and themes from which to choose, and an array of talented filmmakers involved who’ve done unassailably solid work. And this is what makes the unavoidable lack of this film’s ambition so puzzling. With so much to work with, Macdonald and Co. decided to work with as little as possible, turning what could’ve been a fascinating rumination on either adolescence, or war, or society (or lack thereof), into a hodgepodge of just a little bit of all of the above. Ronan’s performance is definitely the highlight of this otherwise unremarkable effort from a director who’s obviously much more capable than this most recent effort suggests.

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