'How I Live Now' review: Saoirse Ronan proves an able host

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A sullen, angst-ridden and hormonal teen struggles to filter a hostile world through the voices in her head in "How I Live Now." Funny that Saoirse Ronan decided to take, basically, another crack at "The Host" in tackling the lead in this film of the Meg Rosoff novel.

"How I Live" is another dystopia about a world under siege and a teen-age girl trying to survive war and find a little love along the way. But this Kevin ("Last King of Scotland") Macdonald film scores over the earlier Stephenie Meyer mess by being more plausible in every measurable way, with Ronan a much more recognizably real teen.

Elizabeth, she is named, a vision in pale-faced scowls and torn fishnet stockings. A New Yorker, she's come to the UK from America to visit her step-cousins, the British children of her mother's sister. And she makes friends, right off the plane.

"Nobody calls me 'Elizabeth.' It's 'Daisy.'"

"Are you a vampire?" tiny cousin Piper ( Harley Bird) wants to know.

Sullen Daisy does her darnedest to not fit in, which is easy, since 14-year-old Isaac ( Tom Holland) was the one who drove the family's ancient Land Rover to pick her up at the airport and then delivered her to their rural, self-sufficient farm in the idyllic English countryside. Talk about culture clash.

Aunt Penn ( Anna Chancellor) is a well-connected peace activist, so naturally, the place feels like a hippie commune -- all farm animals, organic vegetables and dishes left unwashed because it's summer and the swimmin' hole is just too inviting.

Darned if there isn't an Edmond ( George MacKay) to tempt Daisy and distract her. And with Aunt Penn suddenly summoned to Geneva, now's her chance.

But about all those soldiers she didn't notice as she got off the plane, those TV news reports they're all ignoring? Seems somebody has The Bomb, somebody uses it and Britain falls under martial law as a defense against internal terrorists (ill-defined) who might control this corner of the island or that one.

The "Now" in "How I Live Now" is about life under those conditions -- forced relocations, forced labor to feed the country, not unlike what happens in civil wars in other parts of the world. How would a spoiled American teen react to those conditions?

The film is full of absolutely chilling moments, creatively suggesting -- not showing -- a distant nuclear bomb blast, the horrors that await civilians in the power of uniformed, trigger-happy men with guns. The splendid Ronan skillfully handles Daisy's arc, from self-involved and delicate to steely, and ferociously committed to this family she just met.

But "How I Live Now" is entirely too brief and too front-loaded to fully engage. Too much time is spent, pre-collapse, for us to feel the deep bond Daisy and Edmond form. Young Mr. MacKay has the same problem that the two male leads of "The Host" faced. He's just not in Ronan's league when it comes to developing empathy, creating a feeling of romance beyond mere teens-in-heat.

And too little time is spent in the dystopia that details "How I Live Now" after the fall. The film stumbles into a cross-country odyssey that dominates its last third.

That is fascinating, but not properly set up, much like the film itself. "How I Live Now" skips over the "How," loses itself in the "I" and never lets the pathos of "Live Now" pay off. 

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HOW I LIVE NOW
(Grade: B-minus)
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland and Anna Chancellor.  
Directed by Kevin Macdonald, written by Jeremy Brock, Tony Grisoni and Penelope Skinner, based on the Meg Rosoff novel. A Magnolia release.  
Running time: 1:41
MPAA rating: Unrated, with explicit violence and somewhat explicit sex
Photo/Video credit: Magnolia Pictures
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