Kevin Macdonald’s credits speak for themselves – he’s the director of The Last King of Scotland, the film for which Forest Whitaker won his Best Actor Oscar, and has a golden statue himself as a producer on 1999’s best documentary One Day In September. But perhaps its that very tendency to move back and forth between the narrative and documentary forms that contributes to the issues with his apocalyptic near-future teen love story, How I Live Now, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival.
How I Live Now is an adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s young adult novel about (like its author) an American girl living in London when (and this is where situational comparisons end) a nuclear attack leads to the beginning of World War III. Saoirse Ronan (The Host, Hanna) plays Daisy, a disinterested and despondent American teen sent to spend the summer with her cousins in the English countryside. She quickly begins flirting with Edmond (Goerge MacKay, Defiance), but the outbreak of the war sends them separated by the army. Daisy and her young cousin Piper (Harley Bird) escape the work camp and venture through the nuclear winterized countryside with the hope of reuniting with Edmond.
While there have been some critics who have praised the film’s ambition, particularly in displaying realistic violence called for in the book in the midst of a more teen-centered love story, reviews have generally been negative. Tonally, How I Live Now appears to suffer from an identity crisis, not only in that it fails to differentiate itself from the run-of-the-mill teen romance, but also in that it’s unsure of whether it wants to be a romantic character study or a postapocalyptic actioneer. Technical elements would seem to be at fault as well, with a schizophrenic camera and drab production design singled out. “There’s a lack of imagination at play,” says The Guardian’s Henry Barnes. “It’s OK if a broken society looks drab, but it shouldn’t look boring.” THR’s Todd McCarthy sums up the whole experience this way: “What starts as potentially interesting apocalyptic speculative fiction devolves into dreary sub-Hunger Games survivalism and banal teen romance in How I Live Now.”
Content issues that muddle the intended audience have made many pundits leery of the box office potential of How I Live Now, but Magnolia Pictures will be releasing the pic this fall, likely counting on the draw of the rising star and indie darling Ronan. Certainly, they’re hoping for a release more reminiscent The Hunger Games (incidentally, it beats Catching Fire to theaters by two weeks) than this summer’s The Mortal Instruments, which saw its sequel delayed this week after the first film’s poor performance.
See what audiences and critics are saying about more festival premiers here.