How I Live Now (2013) - Can't Stop the Movies
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How I Live Now (2013)

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Lit by her eyesAndrew LIKE BannerIn the '90s, when everyone was getting their own personal angel and space in Heaven, the apocalypse was something that could only be planned by shadow officials. Then there was the nightmare of the Bush administration which had our creative minds thinking of the many ways we could meet our grisly end. About halfway through How I Live Now, I realized the mood in America has finally relaxed to the point where we can feel something about the apocalypse other than total fear for the next generation.

Kevin Macdonald's film goes a step further, and removes the protective lens of adult protection from those who are facing end times. What results is a curious film, one that I don't feel is entirely successful, but is admirable in the way it takes the locus of the future away from the people who have worked so hard to ruin it. This isn't to say, as many scenes in the film show, that kids know best. But the time has finally come where the adults can step aside and let the next generation move things forward.

How I Live Now recalls the chaotic way that we try to make sense of the future and our surroundings by filtering it through what limited experience we have. When we're younger that means a lot of music and free association with whatever culture is around us at the time. Macdonald allows the visual space of his film to flow along with the mood and whims of its protagonist, played by Saoirse Ronan. This makes for an occasionally frustrating viewing experience, but one that grows more thoughtful in memory than when we're experiencing it.

The film does such a good job of invoking the images of devastation through a teenage wanderers lens that I envisioned passages melding seemlessly with the post-apocalpytic fiction I grew up with.

The film does such a good job of invoking the images of devastation through a teenage wanderers lens that I envisioned passages melding seamlessly with the post-apocalyptic fiction I grew up with.

The apocalypse that Macdonald brings to the screen is distant, but only slightly. While we never get a full grasp of the events that lead Daisy (Ronan) to move from America to England, I liked that Macdonald used subtle indicators beyond plot-convenient news casts. In fact, Macdonald has fun by providing tempting glances at televisions that have this information, but as our view is through Daisy, she is less interested in what may happen, no matter how devastating, than why her father would leave her. The smaller queues are much more frightening, like young cousins who talk easily about the coming fascist times, or the terrifying realization that the cute girl who is dancing in snow is tasting the ash made of the recently dead.

But those moments are not representative of the tonal whole of How I Live Now. It uses just about every genre trick available as the story goes through multiple shifts in genre. Fast cuts with a punk soundtrack signal Daisy's resistance to her new home, beautiful soft focus and lens flare decorate Daisy's blossoming romantic relationship with Eddie (George MacKay), and an inhospitable gray and steadier camera follows Daisy through post-bomb camp living. A less charitable reading of film might dismiss the presentation as schizophrenic, when really it's just honest about how confusing it is being a teenager – let alone one that is trying to survive the end of the world.  The key scene is one that has Daisy daydreaming about her time with Eddie while she toils in a field.  Yes, the music is a bit on-point, but she's trying to distract herself from the tedious reality she lives in with memories of a happier time.  It's refreshingly straightforward in how it presents the little tools we use to distract ourselves from being unhappy.

Macdonald, by creating these scenes so firmly in different genres, pays respect to the young adult's who would benefit most from this film. How I Live Now doesn't contain pat moral lessons or an easy conclusion. But as an emotional release, as well as a showcase for the different ways feelings are expressed onscreen, it is sometimes brilliant. It's one of those cruel ironies that a film which respects its young protagonists so much can still earn a 'R' rating, possibly driving away the possibility of providing it to an audience who would receive it best.

While Macdonald's rhythm is, at times, a bit too hectic for me he still quiet moments of visual perfection.

While Macdonald's rhythm is, at times, a bit too hectic for me he still quiet moments of visual perfection.

The choice to respect the young adult crowd must have had some hand in the casting of Saoirse Ronan. She was the best part of The Host, and has experience with difficult coming-of-age stories as shown by Hanna. But Ronan is not an excellent casting choice simply because of her association with young adult stories, but because she is the finest actress of her generation. She shares some of the same qualities as a young Liv Ullman, able to embody multiple confusing emotional realities in a variety of surroundings. Her performance in How I Live Now is not my favorite, but it is still impressive how openly she gives herself to the turmoil of Daisy's situation.

Based on my writings so far, it may sound like I should go back and amend my “Best of” list for 2013. While I did love many parts of How I Live Now, I stay at a slight distance from the whole. This is partly because of some metaphorical jumps that don't work, such as when Eddie sucks the blood from Daisy's finger. Yes, my Twilight sense was tingling, and rightly so since she'd be at the age ripe for consuming those books. But that, combined with the whispers of what may or may not be psychic powers, add an extra normal dimension to the film that doesn't quite jibe with the other stylistic excesses. Most of the film feels like it belongs to Daisy, but those moments like that are awkwardly inserted wholesale from other narratives.

That awkwardness still brought me back in touch with my 12 year-old self, sitting on the floor of my house in South Carolina with a copy of Alas, Babylon. Through How I Live Now, I felt that stir of emotions when facing an uncertain future when all you want to do is find a way to talk to someone pretty. We make sense of our lives with the tools that are available, and Kevin Macdonald's film shows that so long as the path is honest, the chaos will all make sense in the end.

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Tail - How I Live NowHow I Live Now (2013)

Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Written by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni, and Penelope Skinner.
Starring Saoirse Ronan.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. Good review Andrew. The tonal-switch in the middle is what really got me into this movie. While it may have, at times, been a bit too melodramatic for its own good, it still delivered a powerful statement on standing by who stands by you, even in the face of a crisis.

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