The young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, who got her big break as the lying little girl in Atonement, has deep blue orbs for eyes, an incredibly slender frame, and an almost otherworldly seriousness about her. She’s classically beautiful but also a little distant, a little unusual—qualities that have not gone unnoticed by filmmakers, who have cast her as a vampire, a dead girl, the host for an alien parasite, and an adolescent assassin (twice). Given that résumé, audiences could be forgiven for assuming that there’s something supernatural about Daisy, the moody American tourist Ronan plays in How I Live Now. The movie opens with a din of overlapping voices, the girl’s headspace rendered audible through a hushed flurry of competing mantras. Is she a mind reader, trying to sort out of a steady intake of outside thoughts? A sleeper cell oppressed by her internal instructions? An android reviewing her commands? As it turns out, the voices in Daisy’s head are all her own; she’s just a normal, despondent teenager, thinking so hard that viewers can hear the process. This time, it’s the world around Ronan that’s a bit off.
Though it’s initially easy to forget, given the bucolic backdrop, How I Live Now is set in an uneasy future in which the military now occupies airports, and a third world war looms on the horizon. Based on an acclaimed young-adult novel, the film turns out to be another aftershock of the Twilight boom, a tale of first love between an introverted girl and the sensitive heartthrob who pulls her out of her shell. They’re kissing cousins, these two—she a Manhattan transplant, come to stay with distant relatives on an English farm, and he the hunkiest of said kin. (The rest of the U.K. family includes a bespectacled preteen boy and a grade-school-age girl.) In this secluded, sun-dappled paradise, the teens fall in love, though Daisy doesn’t make it easy for Edmond (George MacKay), the smoldering cow-whisperer of her wildest dreams. (“More rules,” he admonishes, when, with great difficulty, she initially rebukes his advances.) Yet just as the lovers are getting down to taboo-teasing business, the world beyond their rural oasis erupts into fire and fear, and How I Live Now morphs into a fashionably grim survival story. Rather than vampire law, it’s martial law keeping Daisy and Edmond apart.
Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King Of Scotland) lends this YA paperback-dystopian material a veneer of handsome seriousness: He contrasts the idyllic luster of the farm scenes with the ashen grayness of the later ones, while also straining out some of the novel’s sillier elements (such as telepathy). Death creeps into the movie, like an invisible wave of radiation from a detonated nuke, and some of the imagery owes more to Cormac McCarthy than to Stephenie Meyer. As in the bleakest of all fallout movies, Testament, a massive attack on a major city comes without warning, and no culprits or rationales are provided. That strategy plays to the film’s severely limited perspective, in which the audience learns nothing that Daisy and her companions don’t know. But it also allows Macdonald and his three screenwriters to be rather vague about the nature of the new world order, creating a somewhat unbelievable vision of a totalitarian U.K. (Would the British government really respond to the bombing of London by forcing countryfolk into labor/death camps?) The overwhelming impression, and it’s a slightly unsavory one, is that all this Children Of Men-style misery is just an obstacle placed in the way of two separated lovers. Nevertheless, Ronan acquits herself nicely. Believable as both a smitten leading lady and a resourceful action heroine, she’s the ideal young-adult starlet—though after this and The Host, maybe it’s time the actress lent her piercing baby blues to a plain old adult project again.