How I Live Now (2013) opens by introducing viewers to an instantly detestable beacon of teenage angst. Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a sardonic, belligerent American girl expatriated to London for initially unknown reasons. Daisy’s first on-screen moments follow her, headphones and sunglasses on, walking through a military-occupied Heathrow airport, spewing “leave me alone”-isms with every step. Arriving at the secluded and surprisingly adult-less home of her cousins, Daisy’s hostility continues as she’s introduced to family members and given a tour of the property. Even the unreasonably adorable antics of her cousin Piper (Harley Bird) don’t crack Daisy’s impenetrable stubborn air of condescension.
The beginning of the film fails to capture the audience's interest in a favorable way. “The film’s opening stretch is not especially promising, insofar as it seems determined to shackle the viewer to the most unpleasant lead character imaginable.” - Justin Chang, Variety
“Ronan’s characters have always been chilly intellectuals whose greatest strength came from their maturity, but Daisy feels much more like a real teenager, disguising insecurity and misery with sullen superiority, and fixating on her goals at the expense of everyone around her.” - Tasha Robinson, The Dissolve
We’re also treated to Daisy’s schizophrenic mutterings in the form of voice-over. They’re a barrage of analytical, critical, and motivational statements Daisy lives by, such as “Daisy, I knew you’d fuck this up!” and maxims like “step out of your comfort zone,” and other self-administered advice she seems keen to ignore. Her awkward moments become our awkward moments when she calls herself stupid or ugly. It’s annoying and unpleasant - much like the realities of being a teenager.
Just before the war starts, Daisy falls in love with Eddie (George MacKay), the eldest of her cousins. Oddity of that statement aside, he’s the only person in the film capable of breaking down her barriers. There’s a quasi-telepathic connection between the two that is not explained or elaborated, but their passion is immediate and powerful. So powerful that, after the war breaks out, the film transitions into a romantic survival story about reuniting a severed love.
“As a portrait of a surly 16-year-old whose internal crisis is overtaken by an external one, the movie is persuasive.” - Mark Jenkins, NPR
The bulk of Daisy’s angst early in the film came from a feeling of neglect. She felt abandoned by he family, pushed aside to a different country, and felt as though nobody wanted her. From a teenage perspective, it’s not unreasonable. Through the narrow worldview of a person in her position, Daisy felt she had every right to her quirks.
War gave her an instant appreciation for life, and for other people, and all the things she treated with disdain in the story’s beginning. She found people to attach to and a feeling that someone cared for her. Daisy required an extreme situation to knock her into reality.
The war-half of the film shows us what real living is, and how Daisy learns that for herself. Being normal means embracing what you have, not what you feel you’re entitled to, or what you wish you had.