You Dropped a Bomb on Me, by Rita Cannon
Some viewers of Kevin McDonald’s How I Live Now, a teen love story set during a nuclear war, might find themselves wondering exactly who the film’s target audience is. It’s likely too violent and intense for many of the younger teens who are fans of the YA novel it’s based on, while adults might find its central romance a bit treacly and earnest. The first criticism is entirely valid; the film’s graphic gun violence, preponderance of dead bodies, and pervasive sense of visceral dread add up to an experience that’s wholly inappropriate for children. But the weight it gives to its love story – a fleeting crush that, through extraordinary circumstances, transforms into a love for the ages – is an asset rather than a liability. There are a million movies about war. How I Live Now is specifically about war as experienced by a teenage girl, and it’s that specificity of vision that makes the film so affecting.
Saoirse Ronan plays Daisy, a sullen American 16-year-old sent to live with her aunt and cousins on a farm in the British countryside. The aunt is frequently absent, leaving Daisy and the three kids to fend for themselves. Initially prickly, Daisy soon warms up to her cousins, and also strikes up a romance with handsome neighbor Eddie. What at first seemed like a punishment becomes idyllic, a seemingly endless summer vacation, even as an unspecified international conflict seems to be escalating around them. When the conflict culminates in a nuclear bomb detonation in London, government forces descend on the farm, separate the boys from the girls, and take them to two different relocation camps. In the chaos of evacuation, Eddie and Daisy make a vow to escape their camps and meet up back at the barn, no matter what.
Daisy’s ironclad determination to make it back to Eddie – and her absolute certainty that this is a better, safer option than following the government’s instructions during a national emergency – may not seem very logical, but they form the backbone of the film’s perspective. We experience the entire film from Daisy’s perspective. She never once questions her conviction, and thus, neither does the film. This conceit is helped along by great acting from Ronan and MacKay, who have the best chemistry I’ve seen between two romantic leads in a long time. Their rapturous infatuation is quintessentially teenage, and yet they both have a grounded, mature quality that makes you certain they can trust each other.
We know very little about the conflict that separates Daisy and Eddie. This works fine for most of the movie; having no information beyond the dangers immediately in front of us keeps us firmly inside Daisy’s head, just as we’re intended to be. But it becomes a bit of a problem as it draws to a close. If the war is assumed to be nearly won, the ending reads one way; if not, it’s dramatically different. I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the film’s final moments, and I don’t think that was entirely on purpose. But for most of its runtime, How I Live Now is gripping, suspenseful, and refreshingly emotional.