The cold war is over, and yet there are way more apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic movies being made now than during the fearful '50s. In the last decade, we've had “The Road,” “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “Time of the Wolf,” “2012” and innumerable action epics built around the end of the world.
“How I Live Now” shows up with a classy pedigree: director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland”) and writer Tony Grisoni (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” “Queen of Hearts”) are working from a popular and celebrated young adult novel. Also on board is actress Saoirse Ronan, who was nominated for an Oscar for her first major role (“Atonement”).
Here Ronan plays Daisy, an American teen with more than her share of issues. Mom died giving birth to her; Dad has now sent her to England to visit a houseful of maternal cousins she's never met. It is hinted that he's trying to get her out of harm's way as the dark clouds of war are gathering — which makes no sense, since England appears to be Ground Zero. On the other hand, Daisy is such a screwed up, surly, wholly unlikable pill that maybe Dad knows exactly what he's doing.
Daisy's aunt has to leave the next day for government-related war work. Or because Daisy's been described to her. That leaves our little miss sunshine alone with three cousins and a dog. Being such a charmer, she has no time for any of them except Edmond (George MacKay), a brooding heartthrob roughly her age. His brooding indeed makes her heart throb, and an adolescent romance is born. (An adolescent romance between two first cousins? Ah, who are we to judge?)
Daisy thinks of herself as a curse, bringing disaster wherever she goes. Such a notion is mere superstition, of course, so to suggest that the temporal proximity of her first sexual liaison (with her cousin) and the start of the war is anything beyond coincidence — the hand of a vengeful god, for instance — would be rude and uncalled for.
In any case, when the bombs start falling and the electricity disappears, the area is evacuated, with the boys and the girls sent to separate facilities. Daisy and little Piper (Harley Bird) pick potatoes for a spell before Daisy can organize an escape. Despite the dangers lurking all around, she is intent on reuniting with her newly found love back at the old homestead — radioactivity and poisoned water notwithstanding.
Ronan works hard, but Macdonald makes some of the exposition subtle enough to leave us frequently confused. At the beginning, before we even see Daisy, we hear a jumble of voices banging around in her head. Then, when she meets Eddy, he somehow knows she's hearing voices. The only possible explanation is that they are both telepaths and the voices are transmission noise, like the drifting of a hard-to-tune AM radio. But no, no telepathy on hand: In the book she's anorexic and the voices are her own attacks on herself. But her eating disorder has been mostly removed for the film, leaving ghostly hints of a plot wrinkle excised as an afterthought.
Likewise, the extent and nature of the war — critical to our understanding of what the characters are up against — is also murky. The war appears to be internal — the enemy, domestic terrorists — but we're also supposed to worry whether the rest of the world is crumbling. If it's not, where are the U.N. troops? And: What's up?
This subject is so tired that a film better have something really special to justify itself. “How I Live Now” doesn't; and the confused storytelling doesn't help at all.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).