How I Live Now opens with Daisy (Saoirse Ronan), a contentious, insecure American teenager, learning to adjust to an entire summer living in the English countryside with a variety of initially amusing cousins—an existence that would appear to be hell for someone just coming into their independent woman-ness. There’s no space, lots of gross little boys and animals, and nothing in the way of any sense of propriety. It isn’t all bad though: We soon learn that they’re only Daisy’s cousins by marriage, which is revealed to be a relief when kind, hunky Edmond (George McKay), starts to regard her from afar as she berates his siblings for their teeming noisy slovenliness. Soon, too soon, Daisy melts in Edmond’s arms, transformed by his sturdy embrace and powers of observation from a raw nerve into a survivalist can-doer who might make even Katniss blush. Daisy’s self-actualization turns out to be well-timed, too, as the family is soon separated by the intervening military in an attempt to contain a murkily defined uprising that’s already led to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in London.
There are a few effectively disquieting sequences early on, but the film never recovers from director Kevin Macdonald’s indifferent staging of a pivotal moment: Daisy’s transformation from a paranoid self-absorbed teen to a ferocious young fighter determined to get back to her lover. Trying to redeem typically sexist empowerment kitsch, Macdonald essentially elides potentially sweeping emotional moments that should bring us closer to Daisy and, by extension, render us vulnerable to mounting atrocities as the film switches gears from a tale of summer love to a parable of a society driven toward temporary dictatorship by an encroaching menace. We’re detached from our potential surrogate at precisely the point when her point of view should be syncing up with ours, as well as standing in for all the tarnished idealism of war-torn Britain. Inescapably then, How I Live Now, though rife with incident, feels rote and processional: Nothing we see matters, and nothing seems to mean anything at all apart from a vaguely defined resonance with Daisy’s now steely courage. The film is all structure, all good taste and chalked-in characters arcs. As potential ends of the world goes, it’s all awfully tidy and dull.