How I Live Now follows an American girl, sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives, finding love and purpose while fighting for her survival as war envelops the world around her. On paper the ideas it presents on love and depiction of war probably sounded a lot better on the book pages than they do on screen. It’s clear from the getgo that this film will attempt expand on its premise as our protagonist is a rebellious teen who hasn’t grown up despite the war torn world around her. The concept is fine in an arc that makes our protagonist transformation and growth dynamic while showing her live life with that transformation. Beginning with a poor introduction that immediately makes our protagonist hateful, a series of conversations that makes her come to term on the acceptance of her new define home, interaction with an undefine human character helping her find new meaning in life, and becoming that new person as the world around her goes in ruins. What doesn’t work is everything else in the middle from hammy to cheesy dialogue, sappy romantic elements, and underdeveloped characters. Everything is emotionally detached in a story that wasn’t demanding detachment. Despite learning plenty about the characters we follow there’s no level of anxiety for their survival nor a care for an apocalypse that could occur in the real world. Missing is a sense of the world itself giving us too little to go on for what is meant to be its driving metaphor. Other elements like our protagonists thoughts, romance with her cousin, being in charge of a life, or even how little human nature changes go nowhere and become are seen as plot devices instead of an important piece of characterization. For a story that has good ideas and avoiding the formula of both romance and apocalyptic films nothing comes across as it should. Instead of sharing a journey that emotionally breaks our protagonist viewers might instead become detach from everything that occurs and even bored in a film that shows a child getting shot.
Directed by Kevin McDonald the film looks great and has a nice sense of pastoral elegance about it, with the beautiful British countryside being the backdrop to both love and death, joy and pain, beauty and horror. However McDonald is unable to shift tone elegantly as he’s able to capture the beauty of the countryside. Becoming a prominent issue when tones jarringly shift from being sad and broody quickly turning into cheesy and dull without without warning. The cast are all good, especially the star of the show Saoirse Ronan, who has been carving a niche for herself as special but tormented teens yearning to reach out and find a common humanity. She charts the inevitable growth of her character well, but alas is poorly served by the script, which requires so little of her given the circumstances. A lot is implied through the photography, imagery, music and strange visions that Ronan herself is required to do little actual “acting” herself. Same goes for the talented George Mackay, who is meant to embody an ideal of love and masculinity but is not asked to do much to prove it apart from bring out the nice side of his own cousin. The younger kids Holland and Bird are also very likable without being annoying, a tough act especially for Bird who is meant to be a typically chirpy happy seven year old in war torn times, but naturally unaware of any of it.
How I Live Now comes across as an adaptation of a book that didn’t translate as great as it should have on film. While it certainly avoids formula for a fresh mixture of genres what it fails to do is elevate them beyond mere ideas. The technical sides while faring better is unable to overcome a sloppy direction that makes the film faults more evident. As it stand it’s a solid picture slightly overcoming its issues thanks to its strong cast, interesting ideas, and great cinematography that make it worth a one time viewing, though certainly nothing that will leave a big impression for how it does things.