“The Hunger Games” movies aren’t the only Young Adult novel-to-film adaptations out there. It’s a downright flood at the multiplex these days. Though “How I Live Now” dabbles with a smidgen of mind-reading, it’s largely free of the extranormal gimmicks — sparkly vampires, teen bayou witches, Greek demigods or intergalactic fascists – familiar from the “Twilight,” “Beautiful Creatures,” “Percy Jackson” and “Ender” franchises. It’s got a big what-if premise, but keeps its feet more firmly on the ground.
Not to say that “Live,” based on the YA book by Meg Rosoff, isn’t derivative. It’s a puree of “Graveyard of the Fireflies,” “28 Days Later,” “When the Wind Blows,” “Children of Men,” “The Road” and “Lore,” with elements of teenage pluck that steer it into “Walkabout” and “Railway Children” territory. Even so, the movie finds its own personality.
Stern, gifted young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan plays American teen Daisy, who’s grudgingly sent away for the summer to live with cousins she doesn’t know in the English countryside. The youngest is the girl Piper (Harley Bird), next is Isaac (Tom Holland, the talented young actor from the tsunami drama “The Impossible”). Then there’s Eddie (George MacKay), an age-appropriate, often shirtless dreamboat seemingly designed to loosen Daisy up. Too bad about the end of the world.
Yes, based on TV updates of terrorist bombings all over the place, World War III is in the works. That’s underscored by the Brit kids’ mom (Anna Chancellor, in a nice but brief cameo), a vaguely defined activist who holes up in her study taking tense calls from Oslo and sighing, “This peace process, it’s a complete nightmare!”
No, the nightmare is what happens when the process fails. The nightmare in “How I Live Now,” though, is a relatively benign one. Director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland,” “State of Play”) keeps the focus on the kids. We don’t know who the “enemy units” are when they begin to overrun the country, or what their agenda is. No, for a while we remain in bucolic bliss, in an adult-free montage of the kids swimming, fishing, roasting marshmallows and, for the older, kissy twosome, rolling over in the clover.
Things change, of course. The kids get separated and sorted into a gray and dismal police state, where the recognized authorities hardly seem much better than the faceless enemy creeping round the hedgerows. The movie takes a good, almost nostalgic, whiff of 20th century dystopia, Orwell-style. But “How I Live Now” — and this is what makes it both weirdly pleasant to watch, and disappointing — never really gets its hands dirty. Macdonald seems anxious about straying too far from England’s rural beauty, even when the occasional corpse (burnished like a piece of marble statuary) turns up.
That’s one of the movie’s puzzling missteps. Also: when Daisy first arrives for the summer — her mind abuzz with self-critical thoughts that we hear droning insect-like on the soundtrack — the film misleadingly hints that she’s some sort of sleeper-cell terrorist recruit. (Her edginess goes away quickly once she’s tamed by country living.) A gift for telepathy among the kids is hinted at, then abandoned as a plot element. The last act, jolted by an out-of-nowhere voiceover from Daisy, is an almost shockingly conservative endorsement of simple rural living and the rightful subjugation of a young girl’s needs to those of her man. And the entire, cataclysmic storyline is summed up as a metaphor for a teenage girl’s need to relax and not try to over-control her world. In other words, it’s a parable about overcoming anorexia; no, seriously.
Despite its flaws, and even when it feels like a Frankenstein monster patched together from previous works, “How I Live Now” is compelling. Despite the R rating (a typical wrong call by the MPAA) it’s welcome counter-programming for tweens and teens tired of the sillier supernatural flicks targeting their allowance money.
“How I Live Now.” With Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Harley Bird, Tom Holland. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Rated R. 101 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.