Films that depict war are often times caught up in the how’s and the why’s so much that they glance over the impact such a traumatic event has on the everyday people caught in the middle who have no vested interest in who wins or loses aside from simply staying alive. It is even more rare when a film shows the effects of war on children, a demographic that is usually forgotten about but is no less impacted by the horrors of war. The film How I Live Now, from acclaimed director Kevin MacDonald and based off the 2004 novel of the same name delves headfirst into that neglected thematic subject matter and reminds us that the true victims of war are often those we leave behind.
There are two shining examples of films that showcase the horrors of war through the eyes of an adolescent, the first being the sadly overlooked Steven Spielberg epic Empire of the Sun which chronicled the life of a young British boy struggling to survive in a war ravaged China just after Japan had invaded during WW2. The other being the animated film Grave of the Fireflies, an emotionally draining and heartwrenching account of a young Japanese boy and his baby sister searching for their parents admist a devastated Japan after America dropped the two atomic bombs. How I Live Now takes a decidedly different approach however by placing its key characters in a fictional war, but the effect is no less potent.
Told primarily through the eyes of Daisy (played by the immensely talented Sairose Ronan), a young American girl, she has been sent abroad on holiday by her single parent father to visit with her aunt and cousins in the English countryside while the world around them seems to be plunging into chaos. Daisy, being the rebellious girl that she is, isn’t too keen on the idea and rejects all the efforts put forth by her three cousins to include her in their daily carefree activities. There is the optimistic younger brother Issac (Tom Holland), the stoic older brother Edmond (George McKay) and their younger sister Piper (Harley Bird) who make up Daisy’s distant relatives. Daisy’s world gets even more difficult when her aunt is summoned to Geneva for some peace talks that are supposed to take place and soon leaves the four children on their own.
For a short time they play and frolic around their hidden garden of Eden as Daisy slowly begins to let her guard down and eventually falls in love with Edmond. Their time together doesn’t last long however after an extremely haunting moment occurs when all are out on a picnic in the open grasslands and the sky suddenly turns from bright blue to a dingy grey and what at first appears to be snow falls to ground followed by a thunderous boom from far away. That snow is quickly revealed to be ash which is the result of a nuclear bomb that was detonated by an unknown terrorist group not too far from where they live. Soon all four children are faced with the grim realities of war as they are separated and forced into labor to support the war effort with only one goal on their mind, to break free and find each other anyway possible.
The themes and emotions explored in How I Live Now aren’t unique as we have seen countless films and television shows devoted to seeing individuals impacted by war before. What separates this particular film from its peers however is how it stays focused squarely on this one family, or more to the point how it never cuts away from them to show us the war itself. Our point of view is always from that of Daisy though and when the kids do eventually get split up due to circumstances out of their control the film becomes a tale of survival and it pulls no punches along the way which leads us to possibly the one area of contention some might have with it.
This is an overtly grim story and while its outcome does indeed show the promise of a better tomorrow, there is no denying that the journey to get there will leave most viewers with a sour taste in their mouth. When the film does eventually turn into a trek across the war torn countryside, we witness atrocities through Daisy’s eyes that we will not forget any time soon. While the war itself may be a thing of fiction, the devastation brought on by it is still all too real and may turn some viewers off due to its bleak nature. Now, it’s important to note that the film never goes so far as to have its characters tortured or otherwise abused (perhaps mentally though), but there is no doubt that by the end these kids will have come out as completely different people than they were at the outset living their carefree lives, hence the title How I Live Now.
The performances are also to be commended as it’s nearly impossible to get one or even two child actors that the audience doesn’t want to choke to death after a while and here we get all the key child roles filled with young actors who not only dodge that pitfall but actually make you care. Sairose Ronan has been an actress to keep an eye on ever since her starring role in the action/thriller Hanna, but here she shows a vulnerability and strength of will that isn’t easy to pull off and she does it exceptionally well. Likewise for Harley Bird as Piper who straddles that oh so fragile line of whiney and needy but never goes full tilt annoying. The male actors are noteworthy as well with both McKay and Holland turning in subtle and effective work (Holland in particular received an immense amount of praise from this reviewer for his performance in the disaster film The Impossible a couple years back and is now all set to be our next Spider-man).
How I Live Now is a powerful film filled with haunting imagery and serves as a potent reminder of the power of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It may be centered around a war but it is about more than just a war, it is about the loss of innocence and how that innocence can sometimes just be stolen right out from under us without any warning. Featuring a compelling lead performance from Sairose Ronan and beautifully directed by MacDonald who is no stranger to stories involving the atrocities of war and the scars they leave, How I Live Now will stick with you long after it is over. Not so much for its graphic depiction and condemnation of war but more so for the glimmer of hope it leaves you with after we reach our destination.
While not quite reaching the same emotional heights of films like Empire of the Sun or Grave of the Fireflies, How I Live Now stands as one of the only other films of its type that we just don’t get enough of. It’s a daring and thought provoking film that reminds us that our connections with those around us are the things we should truly cherish and be thankful for.