Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: How I Live Now (2013)

How I Live Now (2013)

For the first act or so, I wasn't sure whether or not I was going to enjoy How I Live Now. The opening scene, with our heroine, walking through an airport completely oblivious to the signs of really bad things on the horizon, brilliantly set up both the main character and the premise. However, the first thirty minutes were not only quite slow-moving, but set up Daisy to be nothing short of a whiny, annoying, do-nothing brat, and I feared that if someone didn't slap some sense into her and tell her to let up on her attitude, the rest of this movie would be pure torture.

Fortunately, I stuck it out, and sure enough, there came a point where precisely that happens, and not a minute too soon. The rest of this film's runtime was, barring a deus ex machina ending and one particular stylistic quirk, so good that it made me reconsider my initial hatred of Daisy and realize that the film wanted to get that emotion out of me. How I Live Now is no ordinary young-adult adaptation; it's easily among the smartest and most thoughtful teen movies I've ever seen. It doesn't have the mile-a-minute thrills of Divergent or The Hunger Games, but it more than makes up for it with its brains, its great heroine, and its nail-biting tension.

Based on the young-adult novel by Meg Rosoff, this film is about an American girl named Elizabeth, or Daisy as she likes to call herself (played by Saoirse Ronan), visiting her aunt and cousins in the English countryside. Like I said, Daisy is the epitome of the stereotypical bratty teenage girl -- she hates her parents for unspecified reasons, she goes out of her way to avoid interacting with her cousins, and she doesn't want to go play outside with them because she's a neurotic hypochondriac. Slowly, however, through their constant prodding, Daisy finally starts to open up to them and learn how to loosen up, in particular discovering that she has romantic feelings for the eldest, Edmund. (Yes, they're cousins, and no, this film doesn't treat that as being creepy in any way. The rest of the film is good enough that it's forgivable.)

And then a massive war breaks out in Europe, and London is nuked in a scene that manages to stunningly convey the horror of such an event without ever actually showing us the blast -- just the rush of wind that's all that remains of the shockwave by the time it reaches Daisy's family in the countryside, followed by a darkening sky and a flurry of something that's clearly not snow. We never find out who "the enemy" is, whether they're even an enemy nation at all as opposed to terrorists, the only indication of the outside world being the implication that America's somehow staying out of this war, as seen when the American consulate attempts to bring Daisy back home. She doesn't listen, of course, having too much fun with her new family, the reality of the new world still having not settled in. With Daisy's aunt away in Geneva trying to work on a peace treaty, they're all treating this as an extended vacation. It's only when the military comes to relocate the family, taking Edmund to be drafted and sending the rest to a work camp growing food for the war effort, does Daisy realize that, to quote Will Smith in Bad Boys II, shit just got real.

Much like the Australian book (and later film) Tomorrow, When the War Began, and notably unlike Red Dawn, How I Live Now is unconcerned with the identity of "the enemy" or the politics of why and how this war broke out. Rather, it is about Daisy being forced, under exceptional circumstances, to grow up from a teenage girl into a young woman. Her overriding goal is to get back to Edmund and save her family, and the matter of who's shooting who has little relevance to her when her first concern is living to see another day. And a huge reason why this film and Daisy worked as well as they did was because of Saoirse Ronan. Being chiefly familiar with her in "ingenue" roles like in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Atonement, and The Lovely Bones, I wondered whether or not Ronan had what it took to pull off a role this dark. I should've remembered that she was also in Hanna, playing a legit badass in that film in spite of her slight, almost waifish features. (Furthermore, looking up the book on Wikipedia, it seems that she also played the character in the BBC radio adaptation.) Here, Ronan makes the progression from a selfish, vapid teenybopper to a badly scarred but hopeful survivor look almost natural, even in spite of the shakiness of her American accent (if you couldn't guess from the weird name, she's Irish). I loved and hated Daisy for all the right reasons, with Ronan fully inhabiting the character and bringing her to life, warts and all.

Furthermore, it's not just Ronan who carries the film to quality. Director Kevin Macdonald (maker of the excellent The Last King of Scotland) makes the most of what was likely a very low budget, conveying action and ratcheting up tension using just the power of suggestion. Big battles are fought off-screen, but just off-screen; a scene where Daisy and Piper are escaping a suburb under attack by the enemy manages to truly feel like a war zone in spite of the fact that not a single explosion or soldier is seen. Chalk it up to an excellent use of sound that manages to make even the lush, majestic English countryside (it was actually shot in Wales) look foreboding, to say nothing of the implied horror of the bandits or the tedium of the strictly-regulated military work camp. Macdonald knows how to make an excellent thriller with a fraction of the pyrotechnics as your average Hollywood hack.

Unfortunately, one stylistic flourish that he employs here took me out of the movie all too frequently. From time to time, we are invited into Daisy's inner monologue, hearing the jumble of thoughts going through her head at that particular moment. There are two scenes where it works well -- the opening, and one scene near the end that I can't bear to spoil. However, in much of the rest of the movie, the film's use of this little device was jarring, to say the least, and reminded me that I was watching a movie. Furthermore, without spoiling anything, after ninety minutes of build-up the conclusion came suddenly and felt a little too clean-cut given how stark the rest of the film was.

Score: 4 out of 5

It takes time to get moving and has a few nagging issues, but if you're patient with it you will be very rewarded. How I Live Now is one of the best teen-lit adaptations in recent memory, with another standout performance from Saoirse Ronan making for a tense survival thriller that doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence.

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