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How I Live Now

On the outside, How I Live Now looks like a mess. So it’s weird that the film is actually quite good.
By Lee Zachariah
November 25, 2013
By Lee Zachariah
November 25, 2013

It’s interesting what happens when you throw a whole bunch of disconnected ideas into a skip and see what comes out. Let’s say you had an idea for a story about an isolated girl learning to connect with a family she’s never met before. Or you have an idea about what it’s like for a group of kids to survive in the country when nuclear war hits the capital. Or you have a forbidden love idea about cousins falling for one another. Or you want to write about a sullen teen with psychic abilities. Rather than writing four different books, why not just put them all in the same book and hope for the best?

On the outside, How I Live Now looks like a mess. Part Tomorrow When the War Began, part The Shining, part 28 Days Later, it’s a hodgepodge of concepts that don't completely gel.

So it’s weird that the film is actually quite good. Part of the reason it works is that it’s compellingly all over the shop. You genuinely don’t know where it’s going to go next, and that sort of haphazardness keeps your attention. Even when some of the storylines — hell, most of the storylines — remain unsatisfactorily unresolved, it still makes for a tale that’s far more than the sum of its parts.

It’s directed by Kevin Macdonald, best known for 2007’s The Last King of Scotland, and he establishes an unsettling and powerful mood throughout. Saoirse Ronan (The Lovely Bones, Hanna, The Host) is good as ever, creating a thoroughly unsympathetic moody teen and then making us sympathise with her. Young actors Tom Holland, George MacKay and Danny McEvoy acquit themselves very well, especially the exceedingly young Harley Bird (known to a very specific portion of the world as the BAFTA award-winning voice of Peppa Pig), who has to play an enormous range of emotions in increasingly difficult circumstances.

The consequences of war — the violence, the sex, what happens when the rule of law collapses — are presented in an extraordinarily unvarnished manner. It’s almost difficult to believe this is based on a Young Adult book; it’s so intense at times that, were the protagonists all adults, this would surely be considered unsuitable for anyone under the age of 18. But make your characters teens, and it’s suddenly relatable. That’s the theory, at least.

In practice, audiences will likely be divided. It will be an unsatisfying experience for those who require an explanation for some of the more outlandish setups this film gives us, but for others, the story’s uniqueness will overcome these issues. Its untainted look at the realities of war, and the suspense this creates, will make this a firm and enduring favourite.

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