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How I Live Now

The outbreak of World War III is viewed through the narrow but steadily captivating lens of an American teenager dwelling abroad in “How I Live Now,” a story of young love that quickens into a harrowing survival thriller. Held together by a forceful performance from the ever-resourceful Saoirse Ronan, director Kevin Macdonald’s passionate adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s prize-winning 2004 novel wisely sticks to its protagonist’s p.o.v. while avoiding a longer view of the calamitous events around her.

Daisy (Ronan), a New York teenager who, estranged from her immediate family, has come to spend the summer with her cousins in the English countryside. Daisy proves hostile and stubborn from the get-go, rebuffing the warm welcomes of 14-year-old Isaac and his talkative younger sister, Piper, though she regards their quiet, handsome older brother, Edmond, with almost grudging curiosity. Slowly but surely, Daisy's cousins wear down her defenses, bring out her inner sunshine. They spend much of their time wandering the countryside and swimming in a nearby lake; as vibrantly lensed by Franz Lustig, it’s a backdrop wild and romantic enough that Daisy and Edmond soon fall in love.

It’s during one such outdoor idyll that everything changes: Time seems to stand still as the kids hear a dull, distant rumble, followed by a sudden flurry of what initially look like snowflakes. Haunting and grimly poetic, the scene works because Macdonald so scrupulously adheres to his characters’ restricted vantage, allowing the audience to share in the confusion and terror. Terrorists have bombed London and martial law has been declared, setting in motion a chain of events. From there, “How I Live Now” shifts into full-on disaster-movie mode as violent circumstances rip Daisy and Piper away from the boys and send them to London, where they are put to work at a labor camp. Soon the story morphs yet again, as Daisy and Piper go on the run.

The role of Daisy likely wouldn’t have worked with a less capable actress at the helm, and Ronan gives flesh, ferocity and weight to the character’s many transformations, from sullen ingrate to loving cousin, from passionate lover to Katniss Everdeen-style heroine.

- Justin Chang, Variety

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