TIFF 2013: How I Live Now – Movie Review
Director: Kevin MacDonald
Writer: Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner, Tony Grisoni (screenplay), Meg Rosoff (novel)
Actors: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay
Runtime: 101 min
Young adult fiction is a genre that is currently taking the world by storm. Not only are novels being produced en masse, but film adaptations of said works also abound. The film How I Live Now is based upon Meg Rosoff’s successful young adult novel of the same name, and was selected by this year’s “Next Wave” committee, a group of fifteen-to-eighteen-year-old film enthusiasts who hand picked the movies to be featured in the youth-oriented Next Wave program. A director of decidedly adult works, Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland), guides this movie, and the result is a surprisingly sophisticated film that may not be entirely geared towards its assumed intended audience.
On the eve of the Third World War, sixteen-year-old Daisy, played by the young yet undeniably talented Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Lovely Bones), is sent to live with her cousins in England. Left to their own devices by a preoccupied mother, the children have adopted the roles of the adults, and have managed to form an unlikely family unit. Not only must Daisy deal with her displacement and the impending war, but she also has dark troubles of her own that she must face. Daisy appears to suffer from an anxiety disorder, as she constantly hears voices within her head that relate rules she believes she must follow. As she begins a tentative romance with her eldest cousin Eddie, Daisy begins to overcome her fears and to become a stronger person. This new found power is put to the test when the children are separated and must embark on a hazardous journey to be reunited.
Ronan crafts a multi-layered character through which the audience views this futuristic world. We are able to hear the voices in her head through muttered whisperings, and quickly come to understand her challenges and difficulties. The scenery of a futuristic England appears very similar to today’s, so that the world in which these characters live, although decidedly different from ours, remains entirely relatable. As Daisy begins to fall in love with her surroundings, both she and the audience start to appreciate the beauty that they see. However, the idyllic landscapes depicted are occasionally disturbed by moments of violence, such as the fighter jets soaring overhead or the fallout from a nuclear missile settling like snow, which appear all the more horrifying when juxtaposed against the peaceful settings seen before. Also, a fittingly contemporary soundtrack accompanies the film, and will surely become a hit for young fans.
Although the focus of the film never shifts from the children at its centre, director MacDonald has not created a typical young adult movie. The film balances its depiction of the global problems of the world with those of a teenager, showing how important personal issues can be even in the grand scheme of things. It also addresses very dark subject matter in a blunt and hard-hitting fashion. There is no glamour within this gritty film that is, at times, surprisingly difficult to watch. Although horrifying issues are presented, however, the terrorism is not the focus of the film; instead, this movie is really a character study, as the audience watches Daisy change, evolve, and find healing in the face of crisis.
The flaws within this film appear when it does follow the route of a mainstream adolescent movie. The romance between cousins Daisy and Eddie develops unrealistically quickly, as is only possible within fictional teenage romance. In addition, the film takes a decidedly morbid turn in its second half, depicting mass killings and rape in a manner that makes the often-criticized Hunger Games appear like light fare. Some would argue that such issues need to be depicted in a harsh manner, and that young people are able to handle a lot more than that for which we give them credit. However, this film does not always sufficiently explain the reasoning behind the horrific imagery that it presents, and I occasionally found myself wondering who was killing who, and why. A greater explanation for the war would allow a viewer to better understand the subsequent events, and therefore be affected more deeply.
Although the imagery within this film is often difficult to watch, How I Live Now ultimately encourages strength and perseverance in its intended young audience. However, a little more context and explanation would perhaps allow for greater justification of some of the horrific events depicted. Nevertheless, the film is shot with sophistication and features fine young actors who perform their parts well, and a mature youth audience with a taste for complexity in film will certainly appreciate this work.
Photo Credits: Toronto International Film Festival