Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a pretty unpleasant person when she’s first introduced in How I Live Now (2013). She’s angry at everyone, dismissive of affection, and genuinely annoying.
How I Live Now is a unique take on several genres. It’s a post-apocalyptic survival film, with scenes of brutal violence, attempted rape, and head-high piles of corpses. It’s a young adult love story (artfully adapted from a fantastic novel by Meg Rosoff), which uses war and the apocalypse as a backdrop for a taboo, intriguing love. And it’s an indie film, with apparent but unexplored hints of sci-fi and fantasy. Its target market is certainly a complicated one, and those not willing to cross genre borders may find the story a bit intangible.
After all, Daisy has barely spent any time at all with her cousin Eddie (George MacKay) before falling desperately in love with him, yet her only motivation after the onset of World War III is to reunite herself with his company. A girl abhorrently introduced as having an aversion to everything and everyone, including herself, is suddenly transformed by an immediate and powerful love that motivates everything she does for the remainder of the picture.
It sounds like a stretch. But keep in mind, beneath all the genres the film encompasses, it’s a young adult story at heart. Plus, to anyone who’s experienced a similar wave of emotion in their real lives, a hard and immediate sense of love for another person isn’t an impossibility.
The source of Daisy’s nihilism at the beginning of How I Live Now stems from a sense of being ignored and unwanted. Her family shoves her off to the UK to live with cousins she’s never met, whose mother can’t even bother to be there when she arrives. She lives a life regimented in self-imposed rules and authority, evidenced by her seemingly arbitrary rejection of things (“I don’t drink cow milk”) and incessant brain-chatter of motivational and derogatory comments. She’s a girl who lives entirely inside her head and feels the outside world has nothing but trouble to offer.
After her connection to Eddie is established with a romantic-yet-cringeworthy sequence in which he sucks blood from her finger (a nod to recent popular YA vampire titles like Twilight, or a creepy reference to Daisy and Eddie’s blood relation?), she starts opening up to the rest of the family. Just as her personal barriers fall, so do the bombs.
“It’s clear that Daisy’s makeshift family unit was something special indeed, and there’s nothing weak or naive about her desire to salvage it, even if it means a life-or-death journey.” - Justin Chang, Variety
That journey becomes the heart of the second half of How I Live Now. Though we’ve had little time to digest the budding romance between Daisy and Eddie, so have the characters. But we’re to assume they know what they feel. The film genuinely doesn’t care if we understand their connection, if we detest the fact they’re cousins, or if we believe they had time to cultivate something that validates Daisy’s actions henceforth. There’s enough material to support the belief that these people made an impact on Daisy - perhaps the first positive impact she’s experienced in years - and then it was destroyed.
Again, from Justin Chang, “Perhaps the film’s most obvious flaw is that Daisy’s fierce determination, pushing her to ever more desperate survival tactics, hinges primarily on her longing to be reunited with Edmond, a twist that may strike some viewers as naive and sentimental; at the same time, there’s something admirable about how unapologetically the film embraces its protagonist, moony teenage romanticism and all.”
It’s interesting that Chang refers to the purpose of the film as a flaw, but that’s also what is so unique about How I Live Now. It’s an artful take on a really weird, unorthodox set of characters and circumstances, none of which get fully explained. A more thorough explanation of any single component of the film - whether it’s Daisy and Eddie’s romance, the war itself, the source of the nuclear bomb, the occupation of the family matriarch, the identity of Daisy’s father, the identity of the combatants in the conflict - would likely destroy the powerful sense of mystery and ambiguity that fuels everything about the story. We don’t have much information about the war they’re in, yet we still believe it’s happening. The same should be said for Daisy and Eddie’s relationship, and the believability of her quest to rekindle that love.