How I Live Now (Magnolia Pictures, R)

How-I-Live-Now 75How I Live Now doesn’t sugarcoat the sorrows of war, which might make it too intense for some fans of the source material.

How-I-Live-Now 500

The first thing you perceive in Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now is the scolding whisper of a female voice, which turns out to be the internal monologue of the film’s central character, the American teenager Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), who’s come to England to spend the summer with her cousins. On first impression, Daisy’s no prize — all dark makeup and too-blonde hair, she’s too self-involved to remove her headphones while passing through customs, and goes out of her way to be rude to the good-natured family with whom she’s going to stay.

The title is key to understanding this picture — it’s Daisy’s story all the way, and Macdonald is interested not in some general or objective view of any situation, but in how Daisy perceives and experiences it. Being a teenager, Daisy is self-centered and impulsive, but also capable of great strength and remarkable growth. She’s also harsher on herself than she is on anyone else, a fact that becomes clear through her recurrent self-scolding.

Daisy’s cousins Isaac (Tom Holland), Edmond (George MacKay), and Piper (Harley Bird) live in a big, messy farmhouse with their mother (Anna Chancellor), who’s some kind of international bigwig and is currently preoccupied with an impending world crisis. Although there are hints of that all is not well with the world — we see glimpses of news reports, and the airport was bristling with soldiers — it doesn’t impinge on the cousins’ idyllic and largely adult-free life of swimming and fishing and generally doing what they please in a stunningly beautiful patch of countryside (the location is never identified, but the film was shot primarily in southwest Wales). Gradually, they wear down Daisy’s defenses, while at the same time she and Edmond are falling in love.

Then it all changes — an explosion, a dusting of ash, and the sudden arrival of soldiers who pack the girls off to one labor camp and the boys to another. Some kind of guerilla war has broken out, and England’s green and pleasant land takes on a threatening aspect: the water is poisoned and the woods are full of danger. Nonetheless, Daisy and her cousins vow to each other that they will reunite at their home, and the rest of the film is concerned with how they attempt to do just that.

How I Live Now doesn’t sugarcoat the sorrows of war, which might make it too intense for some fans of the source material, Meg Rosoff’s YA novel of the same name (winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award, in 2004 and 2005, respectively). There’s no glory in this war, just shocking and horrifying deaths, and survivors damaged by experiences they can’t even articulate. That’s fine with me — I’m no fan of prettifying the experience of war — and it’s also to Macdonald’s credit that he does not gloss over the particular dangers faced by females when the social order has broken down.

For all that, How I Live Now is ultimately a hopeful film, and one that remains true its intimate focus on its young protagonist and her experiences. Daisy is a role custom-made for Saoirse Ronan (it’s hard to think of any other actress who could make this movie work), and if you write her character off based on first impressions, you might as well have stayed home. | Sarah Boslaugh

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