Here’s how disastrous the MPAA rating system has become. How I Live Now, Kevin Macdonald’s stellar adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s uncommonly smart and insightful near-future young adult novel, has won an R rating. The film is apocalyptic in the most literal sense, as in, an apocalypse occurs, harrowing the characters with grim violence and horror — but that violence is nothing compared to what goes down in PG-13s like The Hunger Games or whatever this spring’s G.I. Joe movie was called. Same goes for the sweet, unexplicit sex scene, which could run on network TV unedited.
The R instead comes from the film’s language: The protagonist, Daisy, played by a prickly and raw-eyed Saoirse Ronan, is at first often uncertain and hostile, a punkish sort who pushes the world away because she doesn’t see where she fits in it. Like millions of people, she hears at awkward moments a panicked voice in her own head: “Goddamn it, Daisy, I knew you’d fuck this up!” she shouts late in the film, after not quite perfecting a daring escape. At other times, we hear her internal voices, layered and chattering, calling her ugly and stupid, reciting self-help maxims, sometimes anxiously swearing. When attacked by them, she steels herself, pops a pill, and attempts to live on, even as the doubts — and the fucks — gnaw at the core of her self.
In short: The MPAA believes teenagers shouldn’t see How I Live Now because it dares to show what being a teenager actually feels like.
Fortunately, the rating system is equally porous and unenforceable as it is disastrous. Teen audiences might not be able to swarm to the strong, daring How I Live Now the way they will to Catching Fire, but nothing can keep them from seeing it in its digital afterlife. That’s encouraging, as the film is a fine one, moving and surprising and scraped of most of the love-me! fantasy that typifies formulaic YA. The central romance is low key, a bit humble, a summer fling that takes on a natural weight and significance with the events of the story. It feels willed by life rather than marketers, just as the movie around it seems a story that happens to feature teenagers rather than one engineered to be sold to them.
The plot couldn’t be simpler. Alienated American Daisy gets dispatched by her father to rural England to spend the summer — and hide out from a vague yet pressing war — with her British cousins. Cue a rambunctious pastoral, as she and a clutch of (mostly unsupervised) ragamuffins lark off for picnics, creek-swimming, and even a bit of gorgeously shot (and somewhat ridiculous) falconry. All this goes on a bit longer than you might expect, as director Macdonald allows Daisy (and us) to soak up the idyll. Everything cinched too tight in Daisy slowly loosens, a transformation Ronan handles superbly, especially as the air between her and handsome Edmond (George MacKay) starts getting sticky — and the duo has a quick, drama-free go at what comes naturally.
Then the apocalypse arrives. The kids are separated, England is placed under martial law, and in a tense, tough-minded third act, Daisy and the much younger Piper (Harley Bird) are run through something like a YA take on The Road. Civilization has ended, and every meal and stranger proves a grave challenge. Daisy gets tested, of course, and discovers a truth The Hunger Games toys with but never fully commits to: Violent heroism is resolutely un-awesome.
There are other correspondences to Suzanne Collins’s books and the films based on them: Reluctant fighter Daisy sweats basic survival, dashes around the woods a lot, and spends more time tending to her hunk than making love to him. Both stories also share an encouraging interest in the trauma that shakes the victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of violence. Two key points in favor of How I Live Now: There are no artificial impediments chucked in to complicate Daisy’s fling with Edmond, and Daisy never even comes close to undergoing a makeover, a fate editors at Scholastic demanded Collins force upon poor Katniss.
Macdonald has given us films as diverse and grown-up as One Day in September, the excellent documentary about the hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the wrenching Idi Amin drama The Last King of Scotland. He applies that same seriousness and artistry to this story, crafting scenes of great beauty and world-ending terror. He has guided his young cast to strong, naturalistic performances, his grainy aesthetic emphasizing their pores and freckles and singular qualities — the distinctive human details that most movies labor to cover up. Tender, humane, and searing, How I Live Now stands as something all too rare: a movie about young people that young people may love — but not one that lies to them, and not one built for them alone.