A few years ago the sub-genre of ‘Young Adult’ had never graced the cinematic lexicon. Now, thanks to the vampires of Twilight, the Battle Royale killing sprees of The Hunger Games and numerous fantasy adventures such as The Mortal Instruments, the young adults are dominating executive producer inboxes almost as much as superheroes. How I Live Now, while firmly in the young adult genre being based on the novel by Meg Rosoff, is somewhat removed from its predecessors in so far as it is set in an immediate future and features nothing outside the realms of possibility.
Sent from New York to the English countryside to live with her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), teenager Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is less than impressed at her new rustic surroundings. Struggling to get on with her three cousins; youngest Piper (Harley Bird), cocky middle son Isaac (Tom Holland) and strong, silent, eldest Edmond (George MacKay) Daisy is hostile at the world. But just as she’s beginning to accept her place in this new life a conflict erupts forcing the cousins apart. With enemy forces closing in, Daisy finds herself responsible for Piper and will stop at nothing to get back to the family home and her new found affections for Edmond.
A glance at the plot for How I Live Now ticks all the boxes of a young adult film; heightened situation, protagonist at odds with the world, a burgeoning love interest and enough drama to bring more teenage angst than you could hormonally handle. But somewhere along the way someone forgot to tell director Kevin Macdonald who his target audience is. As such How I Live Now rises above mediocrity to become something genuinely engaging with more mature themes than films of this ilk dare address.
Macdonald’s direction is sumptuous, filling the world with stunning English summer vistas only to obliterate them with a war-torn aesthetic that perfectly reflects Daisy’s mood before the violence began. In many ways it’s a Red Dawn minus the action. Indeed if you saw last year’s Lore – about a young daughter of Nazis traversing a post World War II Germany – there are many parallels to be drawn here, the importance of the surrounding nature a recurrent theme in both.
Whilst the Twilight franchise focused solely on the oh-so-deep-and-powerful-love between its protagonists, How I Live Now covers the romance in a brief montage which happily captures genuine emotion without all the over-blown histrionics of vampires and pale-pouty girls. Edmond is essentially Twilight’s Edward, but rather than all that brooding he’s just your typical monosyllabic teenage boy. It’s only briefly addressed that as cousins they probably shouldn’t be rolling around in the hayloft together, but this is a time of war so a ‘love the one you’re with’ mentality seems to be forgivable.
The plot sometimes lags, descending into an odyssey across a savage land no dissimilar to Macdonald’s The Eagle, but the film remains interesting thanks to another captivating performance form young Saoirse Ronan. No stranger to young adult fiction, having starred earlier this year in Twilight author Stephenie Meyer’s The Host, as Daisy she plays a deep and utterly believable teenager. Hiding behind cheap sunglasses and enough eyeliner to put glam-rockers to shame, she’s hostile, hiding her pent-up frustration at her situation behind layers of barbed comments. But when she thaws, in the presence of Edmond’s protective ways (full disclosure – he does in fact suck her blood at one point, but only to help heal a cut), it’s impossible not to fall for Ronan’s charm.
With a simply brilliant performance from Ronan and a kinetic yet visceral look from Macdonald, How I Live Now offers something the genre has previously been lacking. The only issue might be if the target audience of young adults, are in fact interested in a film dealing in issues bigger than whether you date a werewolf or a vampire.