HOW I LIVE NOW. Starring Saoirse Ronan, George Mackay, Tom Holland, Harper Bird, Anna Chancellor. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. 101 minutes. Rated M (Strong coarse language and violence).
How I Live Now is based on a novel by Meg Rosoff. It is a story about teenagers and is geared to the teenage, young adult niche audience. It is written in this style, the characterisations are designed to get young audiences to identify with the characters and their situations, and it is the same with the language.
The film was directed by Kevin McDonald, an Oscar-winning director of documentaries, including Touch the Void, Enemies. He also directed a few feature films, most notably, The Last King of Scotland for which Forrest Whitaker won an Academy Award.
For those not in the know before they begin to watch the film, there will be something of a surprise in the portrait of the girl who arrives by plane from the United States to stay with her cousins for the summer. We hear the voices in her head during the credits. She is quite a controller, also obsessive, listening to music and surly with people, her clothes with a touch of the Goth, in need of mending, someone with a haughty manner and very little consideration of others. She finds her cousins off-putting as well. Their house could do with some cleaning. There are three children plus the young lad, George, from next door who seems part of the family, the enigmatic Eddie (George Mackay), 16 years old, Isaac (Tom Holland), 14, who was at the airport and drove an old truck home, and the younger girl, Piper (Harper Bird). The visiting cousin is called Elizabeth but she resents this name and wants everybody to call her daisy. She is played by Saoirse Ronan who has proven herself one of the best young actresses (Atonement, The Way Back, The Lovely Bones, The Host).
Audiences will presume that this is a story of someone who feels alien and gradually becomes part of the family and the countryside. Not quite. Or, rather, not at all.
There have been armed soldiers at the airport. We see trucks and soldiers driving through the city and the countryside. It soon appears that there are possibilities of war, the mother of the children being involved in peace activities, going to Geneva for discussions.
Then there is the huge explosion, nuclear, with the destruction of tens of thousands of people in London. War situations then prevail, lack of power, difficulties with food, terrorists (never identified) who have poison the water systems. The children are taken by the army and sent to different sites where they help collect food and try to survive. But, the plan is to escape.
Much of the film is the journey for Daisy and Piper, making their way through the woods, sometimes hiding, trying to survive, a long walk to return home. There are some frightening experiences for them along the way, a crashed plane, men terrorising some women, their being accosted by two men in the woods, finding a container-centre with the bodies of dead boys and young men, preyed on by scavengers.
But, the physical journey is also a psychological and moral journey for Daisy, coming out of herself and her self-centredness, concerned for Piper though irritated by her, letting go of a lot of the controls that she has clung to, listening to the voices in her head very differently.
Some audiences may be reminded of the Australian film, Tomorrow When the War Began, teenagers in a war situation finding ways to survive. But, this is a more character-focused film.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 28 2013.