TIFF 2013: HOW I LIVE NOW Review

     September 12, 2013


In Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now, perspective on life is supposed to be shown between two extremes.  Life is either ideal or a waking nightmare, and through this comparison we can learn to put our priorities and values in order.  But painting the world in white and black makes the movie uninteresting from both sides.  Furthermore, the good times and end times are about as complex as home realty: location, location, location.  There’s no room for the grey area, which is where most of us live in the real world.

Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a sullen teenager who has been sent by her father to go live in the English countryside with her step-cousins.  Being a sullen teen, Daisy has no patience for her younger step-cousins Isaac (Tom Holland) and Piper (Harley Bird).  However, Daisy does have eyes for her hunky step-cousin Edmund (George MacKay), and eventually warms to the other family members.  When her Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor), who is monitoring an escalating global conflict, flies to Geneva for a conference, the kids are left to look after themselves.  They laugh and play in fields, swim in the creek, and have a grand old time.  The only problem is that World War III is brewing just over the horizon, and without parental supervision, the kids aren’t sure how to deal with the fallout just outside their door.


How I Live Now reaffirms my belief that with all things being equal, if I’m given the choice between a nice movie and a harsh movie, I will choose the former.  Both halves of How I Live Now are one-dimensional and overbearing, but at least it’s nice seeing these kids be happy.  It gives us hope and hints that the war they’re seeing from afar won’t come to their doorstep.  They’re innocents, and perhaps away from civilization, they can live out their lives.  But innocence isn’t built to last, and Macdonald shifts his movie to atrocity after atrocity in the second half.

There’s nothing in the movie that helps bridge the shift.  It’s an intentionally shocking transition, but the other side is just as monotonous.  Daisy’s arc is supposed to tie the two halves together, but she’s somewhat shallow either way, and as film critic Jordan Hoffman pointed out on Twitter, Ronan’s one note has played itself out.  I would like to point out that she does have at least some range (as seen in Violet & Daisy), but I agree that her lone-wolf-looking-for-a-home character has grown tired even though she plays it very well.  However, the thinness of that character is prominently displayed in How I Live Now because she’s stuck in flat surroundings.  The world is either wonderful or horrible, and that simplification reduces the presence of everything, including the performances.


Macdonald has the skill to leave an impact on both sides, but at the same time, it’s not too difficult to do so when you’re working at the extremes.  Most people don’t live in perfect harmony; I would be willing to wager that far more live in hellish landscapes.  Presumably, most viewers who see How I Live Now live in neither, and Macdonald is aware of this.  Like Daisy, we’re supposed to see how good things can be, and how bad they can get as if the world was designed for personal epiphanies.  How I Live Now takes Daisy through heaven and hell, and it’s a tiring slog to reach such an unsatisfying, obvious destination.

Rating: D

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  • signinwith

    A “D”? .. Aaaaaaand he’s back.

    • Albert

      So he can only give C+ reviews and up? He has to like every single movie he reviews in order for him to be taken seriously? Okay.

      • signinwith

        It seems like the meaning to my comment got lost. I didn’t mean that as a judgement. I just meant that after giving a lot of As and Bs, this is sort of his first “bad” review in a considerable amount of time. Just stated as a fact, no judgement.

  • bluerose

    Sad to hear the movie is getting bad reviews, the book is so powerful and well written.

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  • TY

    Saoirse Ronan’s only 19 and in the 15/16 movies she has made, she has distinguished herself with portrayals of characters as distinctively different and challenging as those in dramas like ‘Atonement’ and ‘The Lovely Bones’ to comedy and action films such as ‘I Could Never Be Your Woman’ and ‘Hanna’.
    So the critiscism of her being a one-note performer (or a one trick pony, in other words) is biased rubbish. The vast majority of moviegoers and critics who have seen most or even some of her movies like the ones mentioned previously, would surely disagree.

    • goldushapple

      Wouldn’t your entire post be biased as well? I’ve seen most of her movies, and as someone who think she’s talented, I kinda agree with her being a ‘one trick pony,’ at least she’s showing that she’s not as great and not a chameleon like some critics, fans and directors maker her out to be. You do no service in defending her when you use the majority card.

  • Sam Vimes

    “There’s no room for the grey area, which is where most of us live in the real world.”

    Yeah, but what Id like to see when I go to a movie theatre and spend 15 bucks is NOT someone like me! Who’s with me on that? Mr Goldberg, do you get that?!

    • goldushapple

      Okay, with that reasoning you probably shouldn’t complain about ‘unrealistic’ movies.

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