If you dropped a nuclear bomb on Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, you would end up with How I Live Now. This exceptionally violent story drags a collection of country-mice kids through hell and back, at the outbreak of World War 3. Here's why this movie can stand up with the best of the apocalyptic young-adult films.
Based on Meg Rosoff's novel, this movie follows a 15-year-old American named Daisy (played by Saoirse Ronan) who is sent across the Atlantic to live on her cousin's farm in the English Countryside. Soon, the pastoral landscape begins to wash over the jaded Yank and she slowly starts to peel off her Urban Outfitter's sweaters and connect with the land, healing her soul. But the wishy-washy feel-good moments don't last. Just as Daisy and her cousins start to settle into their world, a nuclear bomb is dropped on London.
Far from the city, and without a parental figure to tell them what to do (the Aunt is away on business during the attack), Daisy and her two younger cousins (Piper and Isaac) and older cousin Edmond retreat into the forrest. While the rest of the world is burning, this tiny family explores its feral side, fishing, hunting, cooking under the stars and sleeping in an abandoned barn. It's not long before Daisy begins a very intense romantic relationship. With her cousin. Yes, some sort of "he's a step cousin" phrase is muttered at the introduction of the movie, but in the book at least, they're blood relatives. It's weird, but everyone seems to be having a pretty good time in the wilderness, the world ending aside.
Sadly, the quiet nights of barn-fornication are not to last. The war reaches the children and How I Live Now is split in half. Green is traded for red and brown. English troops show up and separate the family. Girls to a far-off suburb and boys to a training camp. But before they are cruelly ripped from each others teenaged arms, Edmond and Daisy make a promise to escape their bonds and meet back at the farm with their family. And How I live Now morphs into a survivalist feature.
Daisy and her little baby Piper are recruited into a suburban work camp where they eat out of cans, pick rotten potatoes out of the dirt and timidly sip their daily amount of allotted clean water. Who are are these bad guys who poisoned the water and blew up London? It doesn't matter, you never find out.
Eventually, Daisy and Piper break away and begin the long, trope-filled journey home, stumbling over carnage, rape parties and death. So much death. Director Kevin Macdonald is completely willing to show a child being shot in the head, on screen. Plus his minimalist approach to keeping the enemy always just out of sight in the tree line, keeps the focus on the kids and the stripping away of their innocence.
The audience has watched Daisy find her humanity and find her happiness in the woods, become a whole person. Now they watch her grow up. No longer pretending to be an adult with eyeliner and cuss words, she is forced to act like an actual grown up in the face of true horrors. It's her job to bring the tiny family back together again.
There's lots to like about this film, I adored the time spent in the rolling countryside of the UK. It's stunningly gorgeous and the way the movie is shot lends a sense of place to this wilderness — you could really tell a difference between the family's farmstead and the rest of the world. These woods felt like home. The acting is simply tremendous. The younger actors who play Isaac and Piper are truly gripping (Tom Holland and Harley Bird). Especially when Piper is DONE walking in the woods exhausted with bloody feet, and acting like the child she is, it's terribly hard not to get mad at her because she needs to keep moving. But that was the point!
How I Live Now gives war and death their proper weight. No one gets any farewell "I've been shot" swan songs. You're shot in the head, you're dead. Kick the body out of the way, the end. Important characters die in truly upsetting ways, and with no explanation besides "warWis hell." So be ready for that.
On the flip side, I really couldn't get over the fact that she's sleeping with her cousin. It got in the way of the relationship, because every time they started having very intimate moments my brain screamed "HE'S YOUR COUSIN." I probably could have gotten over it had I picked up on the "step cousin" thing mentioned earlier — but in the book, they're just cousins. But that's just my hangup on the whole thing, cause I'm me. If that's not a big taboo for you, then you're good.
Overall it's a lovely, lovely look inside the bloody, red heart of war from the perspective of a bunch of innocent be-sweatered children. The two halves of the film fold back into each other nicely, and will make you long for a stony cottage somewhere up North. Both for fishing, and for doomsday-prepping.
How I live Now is currently screening in select theaters, and is available on iTunes and VOD.