Love and Squalor: Saoirse Ronan Is a Luminous Presence in an Otherwise Gloomy How I Live Now

Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now.

Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now.

How I Live Now, a futuristic coming-of-age thriller directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), stars the inventive, always-astonishing 19-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, a Gothic, blond, 16-year-old New York rebel in the middle of the apocalypse, exiled by her father to live with distant relatives in England to escape from the danger and chaos in war-torn America. Arriving at Brackendale, a gloomy, battered farmhouse far removed from her hip, ultra-modern life in Manhattan, Daisy is furious, sarcastic, moody, alienated, anorexic and appalled by a remote rural retreat filled with animals, dirty dishes, moldy plumbing and a profusion of clutter. But most of all, she’s suspicious and hostile toward her three cousins—the oldest boy, Eddie (George MacKay), a handsome lad with a penchant for nudity; his friendly 14-year-old younger brother, Isaac (played by Tom Holland, the remarkable kid who made a huge impact as the sensitive son of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, forced into maturity beyond his years as a tsunami victim in last year’s powerful disaster epic The Impossible); and their fragile baby sister, Piper (Harley Bird).

Based on the award-winning 2004 novel by Meg Rosoff, the film is divided in two parts. First, the idyllic and lush green haven of the British countryside (filmed in Wales), where Daisy learns about friendship, sharing, family values and sex with cousin Eddie. Then, it turns dark and terrifying when the aunt, who works as some sort of defense data specialist, is dispatched on urgent business to Geneva, leaving the four children without supervision while World War III suddenly erupts around them. Although the American consul in Edinburgh issues her a return ticket to New York, Daisy decides to stay with her new family. The nucleus of the movie centers on what happens next, how they take care of each other and what they have to do to survive a nuclear war beyond their control and not of their making. It’s too episodic, cloudy and often inexplicable, but the challenges and hardships are daunting and harrowing enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.

Forced by the military police into foster care, where the water supply is contaminated and the plumbing doesn’t work, allowing only one bath per week, the children are separated, leaving Daisy to become a surrogate mother to little Piper. There’s one ghastly scene where the children dig through piles of rotten root vegetables foraging for food and find only corpses. Miraculously, the sun returns, the flowers bloom again, and birds return to their bird feeders. But not everyone lives to tell the tale, and by the end of the movie you don’t know who lived and who didn’t. The movie is pretty vague about details, and you’re left with more questions than answers. With all the threats of nuclear weapons and the dangers of pollution, How I Live Now couldn’t be more relevant; by the final shot, the violence and horror have taken their toll, and depression is hard to shake.

In a movie without adults, the children are spontaneous and natural. And Ms. Ronan is captivating throughout. She skyrocketed to international attention in Atonement, earned an Oscar nomination at 13 and has since won many awards as the stunning centerpiece in a series of creepy forays into science fiction and vampirism (Hanna, The Host, Byzantium) that are suddenly beginning to look like career traps. At 19, I hope she changes directions before she goes the way of Evan Rachel Wood. By the end of How I Live Now, the piercings and the peroxide and the motorcycle chick cynicism are gone, replaced by the maturity of a loving and responsible woman who has found her heart. Ms. Ronan always manages to find mine.

HOW I LIVE NOW
WRITTEN BY: Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner
DIRECTED BY: Kevin Macdonald
STARRING: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland and George MacKay
RUNNING TIME: 101 min.
RATING: 3/4