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Review: How I Live Now (2013)

How I Live Now (2013)

Directed by: Kevin Macdonald

Premise: When a terrorist attack devastates London, the UK becomes a military state. An American teenager (Saoirse Ronan) staying in the English countryside with her extended family fights for survival and struggles to adjust to a new normal.

What Works: How I Live Now is a unique entry in the field of post-9/11 cinema. What many of these films have concerned themselves with is the loss of normal life and the attempt to recover a sense of community, safety, and stability. How I Live Now has those elements going for it and it is a very well made picture. Like many post-9/11 films it is a dystopian picture like Minority Report but its style and themes are much more reminiscent of pictures like Children of Men. This is a story about life disrupted by a sudden act of terrorism and the scenario is executed in a thoughtful and creative way. Instead of placing the story on the frontlines of the action the way a movie like World War Z did, the filmmakers of How I Live Now place their characters in the country away from the immediate threat of the war. The ways in which the initial attack and its aftermath are staged are very well done, understating the impact of the attack and capturing the fear of unexpected violence that terrorism creates. This impression of reality is one of the main qualities that How I Live Now has going in its favor and the main cast contributes a lot to that. Virtually all of the lead roles are teenage characters. The film is led by Saoirse Ronan as a disagreeable teenager who learns to show compassion for others. The film takes some creative risks with Ronan’s character, making her unlikeable to begin with but gradually winning us over with her maturation. She and her pre-teen cousins have a lot of reality to them. The young characters speak and behave like genuine kids and their early scenes of play in the English countryside establish a freewheeling childhood paradise that is later shattered by the realities of war.

What Doesn’t: In the first portion of the movie Saoirse Ronan’s character falls for a quiet but sharp country boy played by George Mackay. Their romance is convincing enough but the crux of the latter part of the movie rests on the premise that these two characters are so madly in love that they will travel across the country, risking bandits and defying military rule, in order to be with one another again. Because the characters are so young, older viewers or at least those who are a little more cynical about adolescent love may find this unbelievable. The way the filmmakers establish the relationship isn’t through gestures that substantiate love but through the visual clichés of angst-ridden teenage romance. Because How I Live Now is so stylized the filmmakers generally get away with it but the story does not have the kind of credible passion at the center of it that would drive these characters through their obstacles. When How I Live Now reaches its ending these problems become more pronounced. This is a movie built on uncertainty and the middle of the picture is about the collapse of the old society and its replacement by a militarized culture. The desolation is so thorough that the conclusion of How I Live Now comes across as disingenuous. The filmmakers attempt to wrap up the picture with a decisive and uplifting ending in which life essentially returns to normal and the characters, although changed by their experiences, carry on as they were before the war. This is a problem because the rehabilitation and recovery of normal life is not entirely earned and the very notion underneath it, that we can go back, is not in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film.

Bottom Line: Despite the problems of its ending, How I Live Now has a lot in it to be admired. The picture has tremendous energy and style and the performances, especially by Saoirse Ronan, are first rate.

Episode: #466 (November 17, 2013)