[This review originally appeared on my Letterboxd page as part of my ongoing efforts to watch 365 new movies in 2015. Yeah, I know.]
I was very much on board with this semi-apocalyptic YA fable in the beginning. The story follows an isolated American teen moving in with her English cousins for the summer and gradually coming out of her hardened shell while the world starts falling down around their ears. There’s some romance too (of the is-it-incest-oh-well-it’s-the-end-of-the-world-so-never-mind variety), but that’s not the focus for the first 40 minutes or so, and that’s the chunk of movie I was most interested in.
Firstly, Saorsie Ronan is in the lead and I could watch her in anything. She has a real gift for burrowing into a character’s vulnerabilities and displaying them without making a show of it; she doesn’t want you to know she’s hurting, and is there a more endearing trait for a hero to have? She’s also perpetually tenacious, and it’s hard not to root for characters who never give up, even when they’re abrasive and unfriendly.
Unfortunately we don’t get to explore Ronan’s character as much as I’d like, as the story takes us on a whistlestop tour of fascist procedures and the horrors of war while our heroine looks for the family she was separated from. As a coming-of-age story it’s surprisingly bold and brutal at times, and doesn’t shy away from the grim realities and bloodshed that other YA properties might. (I like The Hunger Games as much as anyone, but there’s something that rings so false – and frankly disturbing – about a 12-rated war movie with no blood.)
How I Live Now is a potent metaphor for female puberty, rather smartly using the trauma, confusion and violence of war as the melting pot in which Ronan’s character will forge her true identity and emerge as a stronger, more assured person. Also she has sex in the movie which is probably where I got the puberty thing from.
Alas, the final stretch of the film goes in a happier, slightly less believable direction than I’d hoped for and, while the story remains thematically true to itself, the happy ending it delivers ends up being somewhat underwhelming. This disappointment is lessened by the gorgeous cinematography and stellar Jon Hopkins soundtrack. Ultimately I guess I wasn’t the intended audience for this movie so it’s unsurprising that I was looking for something other than what it gave me. What is surprising, however, is that more young adult-oriented movies aren’t brave enough to show what pain, struggle and fear – all unfortunate but very real aspects of adult life, especially for women – really look like. For that alone, How I Live Now deserves teenagers’ attention far more than Hollywood’s bleached-clean teen dreams.