Sunday, April 27, 2014

Catching Up: "How I Live Now"

 3 / 5 

Growing up in the 1980s, certain disaster seemed to loom.  We were taught how to duck under our school desks and brace our heads, were warned not to look at the light, and taught about the world-changing perils of nuclear fallout, which would lead to a "nuclear winter" that would render most of the earth uninhabitable for decades.  Grim movies like the disaster-movie-style The Day After and the melancholy, difficult Testament reminded us that the future was hardly guaranteed.

Today's young people have it so much easier.  They listen to their iPods, they fret about not having video games to play, and they have a future that is much more certain.  But that's not the way How I Live Now sees it.

It's a movie that uneasily grafts young-adult-novel angst and first-love jitters onto a story about a sudden nuclear attack, but in this movie the nuclear winter lasts as long as an afternoon, and there's only occasional mention of radioactive fallout.  More important to the film is whether an American girl named Daisy (Saorise Roanan) will be able to reunite with her dreamboat cousin Edmond (George MacKay), with whom she has found first love.  (The film doesn't go in much for the "Eww, they're cousins" bit.)

How I Live Now deposits us right into Daisy's world as she lands at Heathrow airport in some not-too-distant future where short-term parking costs £15.  (It's about £10 now, you do the calculations.)  But this isn't a normal day at London's busiest airport: the arrivals terminal is overrun by armed guards, and the drive to the British countryside is peppered with ominous signs of military helicopters and troop movements.  Something's going on.

Her absent father has sent her here, ostensibly to keep her safe while something even worse happens in New York City, and Daisy's not happy about it.  She keeps hearing voices in her head -- voices, we'll come to learn, that connote no mysticism or deeper story about mind control; she's just got the normal problems of a 15-year-old girl locked behind her glum face.  She acts out.  She tells the family they live like slobs -- which they do, since Mum is nowhere to be seen.  She is involved in some kind of governmental work.

That leaves the four kids (including Tom Holland from The Impossibles and Hayley Bird, who looks like she's come out of the tomboy role in a 1970s Disney movie.  On one beautiful summer day, they manage to persuade Daisy to join them for a swim in the local river.  It's a heavenly day, marred only by a distant detonation of a nuclear bomb.

The kids don't know what to do, and how could they?  Nothing has prepared them for this.  They make plans, they worry about the missing grown-up, and just as things look potentially dire, Daisy and Edmond have sex again -- How I Live Now uses sex much in the same way as teen slasher films did in the 1980s; as soon as the two lovebirds boff, something really bad is going to happen.

Military troops descend on the bucolic farmhouse and split up the children, separating the two young lovers from their destiny.  Daisy develops a plan to escape.  They have all promised to reunite at the farmhouse, and Daisy isn't going to let World War III get in the way of love.

The rest of the movie is an odd road-trip-by-foot as Daisy and Piper try to find the boys.  There are hints of the conflict at large, tantalizing glimpses of what might actually be happening.  But politics and war are not the subjects of How I Live Now, not when there's teen love to tackle.

How I Live Now suffers for its insistence on making these two kids into doomed lovers.  Daisy is a petulant, irritating brat, and Edmond takes his shirt off and speaks with a British accent, so of course he's spoonable.  Whether the kids actually learn about the greater conflict is never made clear, but it's obvious they have no interest in it.  Nor, apparently, does nuclear warfare result in much collateral damage in the movie.  The bombs that go off in London and Paris are just plot points.

One of the great attributes of the previously mentioned 1983 film Testament was the way it incorporated a teenage girl into its story.  In the days and weeks after the bomb, nothing much seemed different about life -- until people started dying, hair started falling out, food ran short, and life got remarkably tough.

There's little such difficulty on view in How I Live Now.  Flowers bloom, rivers flow, birds swoop and sing, and life is pretty easy -- except for the ways (never described) that Edmond has suffered through his own search.  Badly battered, unusually submissive, wounded in body and spirit by what he has done, he has a story to tell.  But How I Live Now doesn't have much interest in it.

It's more eager to find out how a spoiled, rich American brat could become a war-orphan, poor British brat still obsessed with finding someone to call a boyfriend.  That's the character arc for Daisy, and as such, her story isn't without interest.  I never once felt How I Live Now was boring or contrived.

But I did wonder about what was happening in the larger world, and how much that conflict would take its toll on the kids.  Watching kids try to cope with the horrifying aftermath of the equally petulant behavior of world governments could have been interesting.  But today's teens, not realizing or caring that the world is still quite often on the brink, want to know what it all means to them.  They may be a little relieved, then, that How I Live Now basically says, "Don't worry, you'll still get to be self-obsessed in a post-nuclear world."  But the opportunity here to remind young audiences that their world is not one they get to shape -- it is being shaped for them, by people they don't know -- was huge, and it's mostly missed.

The movie has a haunting, genuinely captivating first half, then becomes the kind of movie the Brat Packers might have made if World War III had started during a Saturday-morning detention in a Chicago high school.  How I Live Now could have been more daring, a teen version of Children of Men, perhaps.  But for those moments of genuine surprise and fear, and the way it makes kids grow up fast, it's worth seeing.  How I Live Now is entertaining, for sure; it's just not very enlightening.

Viewed April 27, 2014


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