Based on the 2004 young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, How I Live Now is a war story set in a near-future version of England. Starring Saoirse Ronan as teenager Daisy, it tells the story of an American girl sent to live with her English cousins shortly before a major world war breaks out.
What then ensues is anything but a stereotypical film of either the action or romance genre. Instead, this is a poetic film that tells a harrowing and poignant tale of survival. There is romance, there is the feeling of alienation that most teens experience, and there is a lot of violence – albeit the latter is mostly offscreen, with only the aftermath being shown.
There are lots of bizarre things that take place. Daisy falls in love with her cousin, to start with, and the film doesn’t even blink at that. (Not that I am implying that it should – but most stories would.) Instead, we are to simply accept their romance and relationship and move on to more important matters. Modern audiences of the film, at least according to many reviews, had trouble getting past this plot development – despite all of the horrors of the war that Daisy faces, which are most definitely wrong in the moral sense and terrifying in the visceral sense, it is the fact that Daisy falls in love with her cousin that disgusts them. If anything, this demonstrates that we have been conditioned to place sexual mores above others, much like how nudity strikes the ire of censors moreso than violence. We feel powerless in the face of a war, so we focus on the propriety of a romantic relationship instead. That is something that we think we can control. Really, when people are being killed brutally, who cares who is sleeping with whom in a consensual manner? Extend that question to our world at large, even in peacetime.
Also, continuing in the vein of the bizarre, Daisy’s cousins are very independent and close to nature, almost in a magical sense. In the style of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, Daisy is sent to their farm because she is motherless and ill (in her case, with anorexia), both physically and spiritually, and she is healed by spending time outdoors. Gardening, tending animals, and spending time with her cousins is only part of Daisy’s healing, however. The first half of the film seems like it will be a simple story of a bratty teenage girl from the city being healed by a stay in the countryside and learning more about herself and her family. But the lyrical and quirky coming-of-age story is soon violently interrupted.
Daisy’s aunt disappears and circumstances of the war soon cuts off the children/teenagers from much of the outside world. There is a short in-between time, when there is deprivation and a sense of foreboding mixed with idyllic charm, but reality soon ensues. Soldiers commandeer their farm, the boys and the girls are separated from each other, and they are sent to evacuation centres and work camps a fair distance away.
From there, the film grows increasingly dark as Daisy and her young cousin, nine-year-old Piper, attempt to return to the farm and reunite the family. They fight for survival and make their way through the war-ravaged countryside, not sure where to turn and who to trust. They have to survive roving soldiers, bandits, environmental hazards, and other hostilities. Even finding their home would not be a guarantee of safety, as the community’s entire infrastructure has collapsed.
The film is painfully realistic. The war is both immediate and distant, with the offscreen violence having severe and visible consequences for our characters. There are many enemies and the war exists on multiple fronts. The war-ravaged English countryside could stand in for many countries. Daisy, with all of her insecurities, ideas, hopes, dreams, desires, and dislikes, feels like an average relatable person. We want her to succeed even as we want her to obey rules, since we are lulled into believing that those rules will keep her safe. Above all, we understand that she wants to save her family and that she does not want to die. No matter how one feels about the larger political problems of migration, refugees, immigration, and cultural differences, one can appreciate the desire of individuals to survive and live a normal family life. Daisy breaks rules, but she does not die.
I describe this films as poetic and lyrical because the story focuses on the one character’s journey of healing and discovery; the cinematography reflects the emotions of the character and the changing of the countryside itself; and it is fairly clear from the first few minutes that the motive behind this film is the art and provoking thought much more than it is to entertain. We are meant to feel uneasy. We are meant to reflect on the devastation of war. We may feel that, like Daisy, our lives are worth living no matter what. Daisy is not a lovable heroine, but we are forced to follow her on her journey with little distraction. Hopefully, we can look past the awkwardness and learn some universal and timely truths about ourselves.
Even a whimper of one individual’s life is worth living and is worth fighting for.