In most stories about groups fighting for survival, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) would be among the first to die. When the eye-rolling New York teen shows up at her step-cousins’ house in the English countryside for an undesired summer holiday, she works overtime at alienating everyone: “Nobody calls me Elizabeth.” She’s a germophobe who doesn’t consume wheat or dairy and is annoyed at being asked to do anything but put her headphones on and curl into a self-excoriating ball of black neurosis. In other words, the worst person to be stuck with in a ramshackle bohemian house where the dishes don’t get done often. Also, not somebody you would want to have to try and survive World War III with.
In Kevin Macdonald’s kinetic take on Meg Rossof’s popular novel, what’s happening in the world outside is never quite explained. When Daisy lands in England, she’s more focused on the scabby old Land Rover she’s being picked up in than all the armed soldiers milling about and the news footage showing Paris in flames. Her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) is some nonspecified brand of crisis expert, conveniently allowing Daisy to hear murmurings about peace talks and briefly spy a casualty-prediction chart. Then Penn is off to Geneva for some conference and Daisy is left with her step-cousins: two adorably playful moppets, Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird), and one strapping older lad, Eddie (George MacKay), who she can’t stop making eyes with.
When the war comes, it’s flickering quick, like a switch is thrown that allows all the adults to revert to their animal natures. Daisy has just started allowing her brittle and spiky adolescent rules to bend to the house’s loose, country-holiday habits of swimming in a nearby stream and taking picnics on the hillside. They hear a faraway blast and find themselves covered in a snowfall of ash. A quick glance at TV news tells them some kind of nuclear blast has devastated London, when the power flickers off. Briefly, they are able to sustain a pretense of normalcy. This is made all the easier for Daisy, who’s suddenly flaring bright with love for Eddie.
But the war keeps pounding closer, vague reports of guerrillas on the move and terrorists poisoning the water supply. Soon it’s erupting around Daisy and her cousins, more frightening for being so inexplicable.The war is seen by the children only in disconnected snapshots: a roadside ambush, jets blasting by overhead, resettlement centers, a heap of corpses shot in the head and piled into garbage bags. In the more fantastical American brand of post-apocalyptic fiction, once the chaos begins civilization simply evaporates. Here, the story is more informed by history than world-ending nightmares, meaning there might be an end to all of it if they can simply hunker down and make it through.
Just as the superior first half of How I Live Now starts off as a familiar brand of young-adult story, the summer away that changed everything, the second and less imaginative half is another recognizable plot, the odyssey homeward after the group is splintered. The bridge between the two is Daisy, and the tragic possibility that she found something worth bothering to live for right when her life is most threatened. This lays most of the film’s dramatic burden on Ronan. She is generally superb, particularly in viscerally responding to the chastising babel of inner voices which Macdonald pelts Daisy with. But Ronan can too often retreat into that woefully stony distance she has perfected in recent films like Hanna and Byzantium, also dark fairy tales where she’s running for her life.
Macdonald has more to work with in the earlier stretches, surrounding Daisy with perky younger performers whose good cheer bounces comically off her defensive shell. Holland, previously so impressive in The Impossible, brings that same winning, slightly wounded sensibility here. As the romantic lead who’s generally being photographed in soft and fuzzy halos, the stony-faced MacKay seems more suited for a jeans commercial than this bloody, terrifying odyssey. It’s not saying too much to suggest that it’s not Eddie himself whom Daisy is fighting her way back to, but the humanity she hopefully didn’t discover too late.