The outbreak of World War III is viewed through the narrow but steadily captivating lens of an American teenager dwelling abroad in “How I Live Now,” a story of young love that quickens into a harrowing survival thriller. Held together by a forceful performance from the ever-resourceful Saoirse Ronan, director Kevin Macdonald’s uneven but passionate adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s prize-winning 2004 novel wisely sticks to its protagonist’s p.o.v. while avoiding a longer view of the calamitous events around her, making up in emotional immediacy what it lacks in broad dramatic sweep. Likely to be perceived as too violent for younger audiences but too goopily romantic for older arthouse-goers, the Magnolia release reps a tricky marketing proposition that will require ample critical support when it bows Stateside Nov. 8.
The film’s opening stretch is not especially promising, insofar as it seems determined to shackle the viewer to the most unpleasant lead character imaginable. That would be Daisy (Ronan), a New York teenager who, estranged from her immediate family, has come to spend the summer with her cousins in the English countryside. First seen arriving at Heathrow in leave-me-alone shades and headphones, Daisy proves hostile and stubborn from the get-go, rebuffing the warm welcomes of 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland) and his talkative younger sister, Piper (Harley Bird), though she regards their quiet, handsome older brother, Edmond (George MacKay), with almost grudging curiosity. In an early tipoff of what’s to come, the nominal parent of the household, Daisy’s Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), spends almost all her time in Geneva as part of ongoing international peace talks, while TV news reports of bombings elsewhere on the continent suggest a world quickly sliding into turmoil.
Daisy’s company is not made much more bearable by the incessant interior monologue we hear on the soundtrack, a constant stream of self-improvement tips such as “Step out of your comfort zone” and “Take risks.” Slowly but surely, she learns to do just that as her cousins — often accompanied by young friend Joe (Danny McEvoy) — wear down her defenses, bring out her inner sunshine, and introduce her to the pleasures of their blissfully unsupervised existence. At times resembling a coed version of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys, they spend much of their time wandering the countryside and swimming in a nearby lake; as vibrantly lensed by Franz Lustig, it’s a backdrop wild and romantic enough that Daisy and Edmond soon fall in love.
It’s during one such outdoor idyll that everything changes: Time seems to stand still as the kids hear a dull, distant rumble, followed by a sudden flurry of what initially look like snowflakes. Haunting and grimly poetic, the scene works because Macdonald (directing from a script by three writers) so scrupulously adheres to his characters’ restricted vantage, allowing the audience to share in the confusion and terror of suddenly being caught up in events beyond their understanding. Eventually, of course, it becomes clear what has happened: Terrorists have bombed London and martial law has been declared, setting in motion a chain of events that will reach even into their woodland refuge, tearing their fragile family unit apart.
From there, “How I Live Now” shifts into full-on disaster-movie mode as violent circumstances rip Daisy and Piper away from the boys and send them to London, where they are put to work at a labor camp. If we never get a complete picture of exactly what’s going on in the streets around them, let alone the world beyond Blighty, it’s a limitation that nonetheless dovetails with the film’s dramatically fixed perspective, as Macdonald wisely serves up a few fascinating, plausible details — the cold plates of spam and vegetables that pass for dinner; the tablets that must be used to disinfect all drinking water following threats of mass contamination — and allows our minds to fill in the rest.
Soon the story morphs yet again, as Daisy and Piper go on the run and encounter obstacles that bring to mind Cate Shortland’s recent youth-in-wartime-peril drama “Lore,” achieving moments of sharp, bristling tension as well as one grisly apotheosis-of-war-style tableau. Perhaps the film’s most obvious flaw is that Daisy’s fierce determination, pushing her to ever more desperate survival tactics, hinges primarily on her longing to be reunited with Edmond, a twist that may strike some viewers as naive and sentimental; at the same time, there’s something admirable about how unapologetically the film embraces its protagonist, moony teenage romanticism and all. It’s also clear that Daisy’s makeshift family unit was something special indeed, and there’s nothing weak or naive about her desire to salvage it, even if it means a life-or-death journey.
The role of Daisy likely wouldn’t have worked with a less capable actress at the helm, and Ronan, whose recent performances in films like “Hanna” and “The Host” have proven her willing to get her hands dirty, gives flesh, ferocity and weight to the character’s many transformations, from sullen ingrate to loving cousin, from passionate lover to Katniss Everdeen-style heroine. The other roles have been conceived along much thinner lines, although MacKay has a nice, watchful presence as the somewhat idealized love interest (he can tame hawks!) and Holland, so good in “The Impossible,” brings some of that pluck and energy to his scenes here.
Macdonald does crisp, propulsive work in conjunction with editor Jinx Godfrey, while Jacqueline Abrahams’ production design makes the most of the film’s limited resources and intimate scale. Sound work is meticulous.