The apocalyptic How I Live Now begins in a deliberately rushed, uncertain fashion. American teen Elizabeth (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called Daisy, arrives in the U.K., amid alarming glimpses of armed soldiers standing guard and breaking-news images of bomb blasts on TV. Something is going on out there, clearly, and we can’t quite tell if Daisy’s indifference to it comes from being a typically jaded teen, or if this is just the background noise she’s grown up with. Daisy is here to visit her distant cousins, three kids living in a rambling house in the countryside. As she travels out into rural England, even the de rigeur images of bucolic splendor and small country churches pass by in a mad frenzy. We realize there’s no safe harbor out here, not even in the rolling fields of England’s green and pleasant land.
The cousins’ mom, “an expert in loony extremists,” is off trying to save the world from Armageddon and so, is largely absent. Left to their own devices, the kids are lackadaisical at first — they make jokes about World War III and terrorists and fascist regimes. Meanwhile, Daisy and Edmond (George MacKay), the oldest, hunkiest of the bunch, make doe eyes at one another. (Don’t worry: A line of dialogue assures us they’re not actually blood relatives.) Then, with a distant rumble and a soft, darkening rain of ash, the war announces itself. We can’t quite tell at first if the kids understand exactly what has happened: “What’s a ‘nukiller’?” one asks. “It’s just something they say on TV,” another answers. But they all understand that something has changed, perhaps irrevocably — right before the power goes out and the world goes dark. And suddenly, How I Live Now gains the grim peacefulness it has hitherto lacked.
This tale of teen survival was adapted from Meg Rosoff’s 2004 novel, and it probably could have easily gone in the more pop direction of something like John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, or even something more sci-fi like The Hunger Games. Such stories can also easily drift into didacticism, but everything remains life-sized and grounded in Daisy’s experience, as she journeys through an England being torn asunder by a cataclysmic war. The broader arc of that war — what’s being fought over, why, and by whom — is unknown to us. What we see is what Daisy sees. And she sees checkpoints, she sees children getting conscripted, she sees piles of bodies, she sees rapes, she sees work camps — the human costs of social collapse. But there’s a weirdly dreamlike kick to it all, too. The horrors are universal ones, made surreal by the fact that they’re happening in a contemporary, first world setting. (The film also bears more than a passing resemblance to last year’s Lore, Cate Shortland’s WWII film about a young girl and her family traveling through a Europe in ruins.)
Given the elemental but nonspecific nature of the story, director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) lets texture and soundscapes do a lot of the heavy lifting here: We can sense in the subtle shifts of light and sound that dramatic things are happening, just beyond the story’s line of vision. It’s an effective, lovely cinematic correlative to the characters’ own helplessness. And it’s hard not to tear our eyes away from Ronan, who keeps proving over and over again that she is, easily, her generation’s finest actress: See how she turns her usually knowing expression into a glower of teen ambivalence in the film’s early scenes; then watch as she lets the horror of this world sink in, ever so slowly. The film is not without problems — there are parts where you wish you knew a bit more about what was going on, and parts where you wish you knew less. (The love affair between Daisy and Edmund is particularly weak.) However, between this unusually subtle actress and Macdonald’s visually, sonically astute direction, the film ekes something new out of a spare, glancing story. There’s a lot left unsaid in How I Live Now — but it’s unsaid with unusual force.