Starring Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay & Tom Holland
I confess a soft spot for post-apocalyptic fiction. Something about stories taking place outside of traditional society’s rules speaks to the closeted psychopath in me I guess, and I can’t get enough of them. That said, even in my favourite genres I try to be disciplined about calling it how I see it, and not let that innate favouritism cloud an honest assessment of a given film. So in that spirit, How I Live Now is not a very good movie. In fact it’s a bad one. Stuck fatally between two tones, Twilight-esque teenage romance fantasy, and younger sister of The Road, the movie just ends up being schizophrenic, and thanks to the phony star crossed lovers tone, a large chunk of jeopardy is removed from scenes that are supposed to be devastating because we know how this has to end.
Daisy (Oscar nominee Ronan, sporting a faultless American accent) is an American teenager who’s come to England to spend the summer with her extended family, Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) and cousins Edmond (MacKay), Isaac (Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird). In between committing some solid incest with Edmond and hanging out at an idyllic abandoned barn, a nuclear bomb is detonated in London and after it the world begins to methodically end. After an attack and abduction, Daisy and Piper are separated from the boys, and together try to find their way back to their family home in the midst of the terrible things that tend to happen at the end of the world.
Ronan is clearly a fan of the Twilight borne ‘young love set against a supernatural/science-fiction environment’ genre, because this is her second crack at it, after the Andrew Niccol directed The Host. I like Ronan, and clearly she’s got the technical ability to be a great actress, but there’s not a lot to work with here. Daisy is a cartoon bitch in the film’s opening 25 minutes, and becomes a stoic survivor for the rest of the film’s running time. There’s only so much you can do with bad writing. Mackay’s Edmond isn’t really a character and of the two George Mackay releases this week, I’d say Sunshine on Leith is probably the superior of the two for this guy. The film also suffers from a serious case of the bad child performance, director Kevin MacDonald not getting a lot out of pre-teen Harley Bird, who has a lot of screen time, and if anything the film’s best child actor Holland is under-used.
To be fair, as it progresses, the film doesn’t skimp on the hardcore violence and does try and get across its amoral, cruel world as best it can. Problem is it’s undercut by the tone of the first 25 minutes, so these moments fall a little flat because the number one failing of the ‘young love set against a supernatural/science-fiction environment’ genre is the narrative skewing favouritism they show their protagonist, and in a film that wants to feel devastatingly real in these moments, that bias inevitably dours the effect. MacDonald does his best from a visual stand point, but generally could have directed the actors better, and in a film where there are several weak supporting and tertiary performances, the director is the one to blame. It’s just letting slide an aspect of the film and that’s what is done here.
In the end I’m not sure who this is for. The violence is brutal and unforgiving enough that it will chase out those only interested in teen romances, and the teen romance is saccharine and trite enough that it will chase out those only after brutal and unforgiving violence. The only result can be a film that ultimately pleases no-one. I try not to be a hater, and there are films in the ‘Young love set against a supernatural/science-fiction environment’ genre that I have liked (Beautiful Creatures being the one that springs to mind) but the line between failure and success lies in balancing the tone between the romance and the supernatural/science fiction world. If you want real, the romance has to be real, and if you want fantastical the romance can be fantastical. Here that tonal execution is just muddled for a loop. Fans of both genres blended here can do better