If you’re a moviegoer partial to end-of-the-world stories — and I happily admit to being one of them — part of the fun is seeing how the usual signposts will be read differently. Will there be eerie silence? Is survival possible? Is there a point to any of it?
The first two questions are part of “How I Live Now.” The last, sadly, can be boiled down to a youth-oriented, yearning-heart scenario. This isn’t “Melancholia,” it’s teenage angst-land.
Saoirse Ronan is Elizabeth, who insists people call her Daisy (a reference to the infamous 1964 nuke-fear, anti-Goldwater “Daisy girl” commercial, perhaps?). She’s 16 and American, showing up in the English countryside to be with her despised dad’s family.
The two teen sons and their grade-school sister are nice enough, but the irritable Daisy, dealing with the loss of her mom, is rude to them, as well as to a neighbor pal of theirs.
In the background, we see Jeeps on the side of the road and hear reports of bombs in Paris and London. The British kids’ mom has a job in peace negotiations and rushes off to Switzerland to help. Then the house goes dark. Spotty radio reports warn citizens to stay indoors and not drink the water. Fallout rains from the skies.
It’s a terrorist-instigated World War III, but Daisy — whose inner jumble of thoughts we often hear — is busy being smitten with her oldest half-cousin, Edmund (George MacKay). They frolic and build fires, “having fun before the fascist regime,” as one says. They assert their youthfulness (the apocalypse cannot stop dewy friskiness), even as food runs out and planes strafe the skies. Then the military arrives and separates them all. Daisy must grow up fast.
Director Kevin MacDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”), adapting a novel by Meg Rosoff, keeps the atmosphere taut once the world starts running down and civility is abandoned. The story shifts quickly from Rod Serling-style teleplay to junior-miss Katniss Everdeen antics.
Daisy’s evolution from sullen sulker to would-be survivalist — “focus on your goal!” becomes her mantra — is abrupt, feeling less like instinct than a TV-show pitch. At least the nattering, self-loathing thoughts in her head stop, which, alas, seems to be the point.
The good news is that Ronan holds our attention as “How I Live Now” dances on the edge of ’80s atomic-scare flicks like “Miracle Mile,” “Testament” and the TV landmark “The Day After,” but then retreats to YA-novel tropes. A frosty-eyed, imperturbable actress in “Atonement,” “Hanna” and “The Host,” Ronan is at least able to sell Daisy’s new focus while the movie loses its own.
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