Sunday, August 3, 2014

"How I Live Now" (2013)

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland and Harley Bird
Written by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Rated R - Violence, language, sex
Running Time: 101 Minutes

Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), an American, arrives in England to spend the summer with her cousins. At first they don't much get along. Daisy likes to spend her time listening to music and looks upon her cousins' simple farm life with disdain. Eventually, she begins to warm to them and even become friendly. The group, consisting of young Piper (Harley Bird) and her older brothers Isaac (Tom Holland) and Eddie (George MacKay), spend their days swimming and having fun. Daisy finds herself attracted to kind-hearted Eddie.

But all the while, the world is devolving into chaos. One day during a picnic, the kids hear a loud boom and ash begins to fall from the sky. A third World War has begun, and England has been bombed and invaded. The kids decide to remain in their home, but are soon removed forcibly by English troops and split up. As the situation grows more dire every day, Daisy and Piper vow to make their way home to find Eddie and Isaac, whatever it takes.

Anchored by a solid performance by Saoirse Ronan, "How I Live Now" is a mostly okay drama based on the novel of the same name. I haven't read the book, so I'm not sure how they differ.

Much of the film progresses as one would expect. The war that ravages England is mostly off-screen, with the filmmakers choosing to keep the characters on its fringes and let us as the audience stick to their point of view. We never cut away to things that are happening elsewhere; we always follow Daisy, putting the audience in her shoes.

This is one of the strengths of the film, that it chooses this restraint and sticks with it for the entirety of its runtime. What little information we get about the state of England and the war is gleaned from what Daisy is told or hears people around her say. We never really learn who the "enemy" is in this war, and even when we see them we don't get a good glimpse at their faces.

A solid chunk of the movie involves Daisy and Piper making their way across the country to find Eddie and Isaac. Along the way, they face the dangers of running into enemy troops as well as ordinary citizens who've decided that since government is gone then they can take and do whatever they like. In these sequences, it would be quite easy for Piper to become that annoying child character everyone seems to hate in movies such as these, but she doesn't. I chalk it up to the fine performance from young Harley Bird.

In fact, the cast in general are up to the task. They're a lively bunch when things are good, and sell the fear when things to to hell. A special note should go to Danny McEvoy as Isaac's friend Joe, who gets a remarkable scene midway through the film. When Daisy and Piper find Joe in a work camp, he's shell-shocked and distant. It's a remarkable transformation from his earlier scenes as a care-free teen.

But, of course, this film has some drawbacks. The central conceit is that Daisy wants to get back to Eddie because the two have fallen in love. There are two problems with this: first, their relationship doesn't particularly feel genuine. Part of this is due to the pacing of the story, which has a lot of ground to cover before the war has to tear everyone apart for the plot to get going.

The second problem with this is that Daisy and Eddie are cousins. Yep. #Awkward

(Yes, I'm aware of what I did just there.)

So I was never quite sure of what to make of this romance because of that. For long stretches of the movie, it's easy to forget about because you get drawn into the various goings on with Daisy and Piper trying to stay alive. But then it pops back up and hits you in the face that Daisy is trying to get back to her cousin who is her lover.

Watching the final scenes, one gets the sense that this is very sweet and emotional, but then you remember again that it's her cousin. It's all very weird. Maybe that's a thing that's okay over there? I couldn't say.

"How I Live Now" has a lot going for it. It's well made and the cast is good, but the weirdness of the central romance makes it all very problematic.