How I Live Now: Toronto Review

"How I Live Now"
Derivative teen romance in an apocalyptic setting.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan stars as an angsty American teen who's forced to go into survival mode after world war breaks out during her family vacation to England.

What starts as potentially interesting apocalyptic speculative fiction devolves into dreary sub-Hunger Games survivalism and banal teen romance in How I Live Now. Young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is almost always worth watching, but not especially in this drippy outing, in which she morphs from sullen teen brat to can-do wilderness heroine under the influence of an attractive red-headed hawk trainer. Commercial prospects look modest.

Director Kevin Macdonald's scene-setting is mildly intriguing, if mostly because so much information is withheld in this adaptation of a novel by Meg Rosoff. Disagreeable American punk Daisy (Ronan) unwillingly arrives in the U.K. to stay at a distant cousins's rural house, a chaotic place where the brood consists of enthusiastic 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland), much younger Piper (Harley Bird), elusive, good-looking Edmond (George MacKay) and a mom (Anna Chancellor) who quickly exits to Geneva, where she is to participate in the “peace process.”

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Indeed, the summer air is thick with foreboding. “There's going to be World War III,” little Piper announces as if informing everyone of tomorrow's weather. There's been a big explosion in Paris, signs of a military presence dot the countryside and Isaac makes vague reference to an imminent fascist regime, while Daisy's automatic negativism is the exclamation point on the prevailing dark mood.

Sure enough, the summer soon turns to winter -- nuclear winter, in fact, as white dust descends upon the land after a reported nuke attack in London. Emergency martial law is declared with imminent evacuation to follow, but Daisy has by now exchanged enough meaningful glances with Eddie that when she, a foreigner, is offered a ticket back to the U.S., she refuses it to stay with the boy. No surprise what happens next.

From this low-key and moderately promising set-up, How I Live Now descends into by-the-book romantic longing as well as inane survival melodrama flecked by some arresting doomsdayish imagery. With boys and girls separated by the army, Eddie is carted off after stupidly provoking some soldiers, while Daisy and little Piper flee a forced-labor farm to chase through the endless forests looking for Eddie, as if they'd have a clue how to find him or a plausible way to survive. Worse still, the two girls are boring together, with no dynamic; Piper is simply an irritant to the besotted Daisy.

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With the exception of one well-conceived scene involving piled-up bodies at an isolated camp -- it is feared Eddie might be among them -- the film's final third is simply a drag and concerned with nothing but insipid teen longing; there are no fresh ideas here. Stylistically, it's filmed and edited in a scattershot way that employs no consistent visual approach; different types of shots -- hand-held here, standard coverage there -- are edited together in random ways that develop no rhythm or excitement.

As she pushes through adolescence toward 20, Ronan, despite her gothy get-up, is acquiring an increasingly chameleonesque beauty; she resembles Lindsay Lohan one moment, a young Elizabeth Taylor the next. This is far from her finest hour, but she continues to impress.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Opens: November 8 (Magnolia)

Production: Cowboy Films, Passion Pictures
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Harley Bird, Anna Chancellor
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Screenwriters: Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, Tony Grisoni, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff
Producers: Charles Steel, Alasdair Flind, Andrew Ruhemann, John Battsek
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Robert Walak, Piers Wenger, Nigel Williams
Director of photography: Franz Lustig
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Music: Jon Hopkins
101 minutes