Some time in the near future New York teenager Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) gets sent to stay with her cousins in the countryside of England, in new teen film How I Live Now. Before long there is a massive nuclear attack on London, reports of an enormous mushroom cloud and hundreds of thousands of casualties.
That’s all the children ever learn, as they try to deal with a war that has nothing to do with them. The first time Daisy opens her mouth it would be very easy to write her off straight away as the ultimate teenage stereotype. But it’s quickly clear that there’s more going on.
She’s taking some medication that’s never properly explained and she lives by a set of rules in her head. She won’t eat “cow cheese” for body image related reasons and blames herself for the fact that her mum died in childbirth.
Daisy moves to London to stay at her distant cousins’ country home. The rural setting would normally be idyllic, but throughout the first half an hour of the film there’s an inescapable sense of foreboding.
It’s clear that there’s a war coming. The kids are free to do what they want, but only because their mum is never around. She’s somehow involved in a peace process happening off screen. We only ever see her once, looking at a graph of projected deaths in mainland Europe.
As the film goes on Daisy begins to open up a bit around her cousins, especially the oldest one, Eddie (George Mackay). At one point it looks as though the whole film is going to descend into some tacky teenage romance—but happily it doesn’t.
When the war begins the children ignore an evacuation notice, which then leads to them being found by the army and separated. We learn nothing about the causes of the war, or who the alleged “terrorists” fighting it are.
The film focuses instead on the young people trying to find each other again, in a war between two sides that clearly doesn’t have civilian interests in mind. How I Live Now is pretty well acted, and it’s an interesting take on a what a third world war might look like from the point of view of people who are perhaps not the obvious choices.
At times you have to give it a chance, but it’s well worth watching.