Imagine a Judy Blume rewrite of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," and you'll end up somewhere in the ashen yet uplifting vicinity of "How I Live Now."
Taken from the 2004 young-adult novel by Meg Rosoff, this is a dystopian vision of a near future in the English countryside, with World War III raging just off screen, nuclear attacks on London and unspecified terrorists egging on civil war. It's no time or place, in other words, for an American teenager to spend a summer vacation.
Daisy, the anorexic and germophobic teen played by rather-too-poised Saoirse Ronan, has traveled from the U.S. to visit her British cousins (the film was shot in Wales; the landscapes are gorgeous). She's a fiercely self-protective and miserable character, suffering from zero self-esteem, a nattering, corrosive monologue of anxiety in her head and other barriers to happiness. "Go outside your comfort zone," the voice tells her, then contradicts the sentiment with: "Stay away from distractions."
The latter she whispers to herself while spying that cute cousin around her age (George MacKay). Edmund trains hawks in his spare time and is an apparent mind reader. He also has a way of walking, hunkily, down a picturesque lane that sends shivers up Daisy's spine. Love is in the air. A big summer indeed.
Young-adult fiction can't get enough of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, some of which are movie-friendly (new "Hunger Games" film coming soon!) and some of which are pretty stubborn about being filmed. "How I Live Now" puts up a fight. The director Kevin MacDonald made the vibrantly exciting "Last King of Scotland," and his work is more than respectable; he maintains a steady tone of poetic dread (plus a few short sharp shock cuts) throughout a highly unsteady story. I'm not sure whom this movie's for, really. The images of genocide and body-bagged corpses, the threats of assault, sexual and otherwise, accumulate in heavier and heavier clumps. While neither cheap nor exploitative, the script crafted by Jeremy Brock, Penelope Skinner and Tony Grisoni cannot resolve or finesse the warring strains of the material.
Ronan is quite good, though — her work is precision-plus and has been since "Atonement." Once she develops a sense of surprise and unpredictability, she'll have a great career ahead of her. As for MacDonald, his eye for landscapes and feel for pacing surely will be put to better cinematic uses next time.
"How I Live Now" - 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality)
Running time: 1:41