Adorably bespectacled Isaac (Tom Holland) waits at Heathrow airport carrying an even more adorable crayon scribbled sign displaying the name ‘Elizabeth’, in order to identify the cousin he’s never met who has just flown in from across the Atlantic. Headphones planted firmly atop her white blonde, dead straight locks and scowl at the ready, Elizabeth (Saoirse Ronan), upon spotting Isaac, introduces herself by saying, “only my Dad calls me Elizabeth and he’s an asshole, so if you don’t mind, it’s Daisy.” And therein lies the (immediately difficult) heroine of How I Live Now.
How I Live Now is the latest in Kevin Macdonald’s (The Last King of Scotland, Marley, Touching the Void) oeuvre and is an adaption of a young adult novel by Meg Rosoff. It follows the grumpy, self-absorbed adolescent Daisy as she is sent from New York to spend some quality time with cousins she’s never met in the British countryside. The house is a ramshackle romance, like something straight from the mouth of Wordsworth or Coleridge. A billy goat trots about the place with a glittery cardboard unicorn’s horn strapped to its forehead, there are hounds wearing headbands, drawings, dress ups, and lots of messy fun. The surrounding property hosts all manner of sunlight-dappled forests, hidden waterfalls and crystal clear rivers, and endless space for adventures. It’s the stuff of dreams for most kids, however Daisy is too busy acting disinterested to join in all the fun, and to her it’s like, totally the worst thing that could ever happen in her life, ever.
However, then she meets Edmund, her oldest cousin, the kind and mysteriously brooding oldest sibling of cheery Isaac and sassy little sister Piper. Despite it being slightly on the incestuous side, Daisy falls for Eddy and starts loosening up a bit. The detonating of a nuclear weapon in London brings their blissful, kids-rule utopia to an abrupt halt. Adults storm in, combat boots stamping all over their yellow glow of happiness, forcing the boys and the girls to separate, the latter taken to foster homes and farm work while the boys are conscripted into the army. Daisy becomes determined to escape the near-apocalyptic chaos of the city and return home with Piper to be reunited with Eddy and the other boys.
Unfortunately, the majority of the film is preoccupied with Daisy and Piper’s journey home, which is the most uninteresting aspect of the story. The worst obstacles the two girls must face are limited to sore feet, thirsty mouths and a couple of close calls with creepy men wandering the woods. Like the characters, we don’t know anything about the World War Three that is supposedly breaking out all around them and so this makes for a very distant and lacklustre back story. It’s difficult to feel concerned or frightened for Daisy and her cousins when there are absolutely no details pertaining to this anonymous terrorist threat that the boys are forcibly being trained to fight and from which the girls are escaping.
All the usual tropes of young adult fantasy fiction are there; the unlikely, resourceful heroine, the handsome and brooding heart throb, the “learning what’s really important in life” lesson, and even the barrage of overwhelming voices in Daisy’s head with slogans from magazines, plaguing insecurities, self-help mantras, and various other shallow teenaged concerns. They’re all there and they’re all devices we’ve seen used before. On a personal note, the romance between Eddy and Daisy doesn’t take up a whole lot of screen time in the film, but managed to be very distracting to my viewing experience as my mind kept wandering back to my own protestations of, “but they’re cousins, that’s wrong! Could they not have made him the next door neighbour instead of that other kid?”
There are some really striking visual moments in the film, particularly when the atomic bomb hits and the resultant ash cloud falls over the cousins whilst picnicking out in a field, which Piper mistakes for snow. It then drips in a milky white substance from the pink petals of a rose, tainting the beauty of the location with a threatening, alien substance. Additionally, when Daisy and Piper come across the training camp of the boy soldiers, scavenging foxes slink eerily around the concrete grounds, their presence as a visual device evoking a palpably ominous and sinister mood. The soundtrack also has some great pieces including music by Nick Drake and Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes.
How I Live Now is an ok young adult fantasy drama film, but it’s not a great one. It’s entirely watchable, it’s just disappointing that it doesn’t really offer anything new to the genre and it isn’t particularly thrilling or captivating either. If the film only had more depth and detail to the terrorist threat, it could’ve become a much more suspenseful and affecting story. Perhaps the novel was just lacking dramatic peaks and troughs and so, even in the hands of such a competent director as Mcdonald, it just wasn’t the right choice for a filmic adaptation? Having not read the book, I can’t say, but with judgement based solely on the film, the story – especially with as exasperating and unmoving a heroine as Daisy guiding it along – was just too much on the soft side to prove stimulating or memorable.