Leave it to a brooding 16-year-old from New York, exiled to the English countryside, to feel like the breakout of nuclear war is all her fault.
That's how Daisy, the punked-out, spoiled brat played with a perfect mix of fidgety angst and seething rage by Saoirse Ronan in How I Live Now, feels. She's a curse. Wherever she goes, doom follows.
A magical and apocalyptic coming-of-age story, adapted from Meg Rosoff's young-adult novel and directed with pulsing verve by Kevin Macdonald, How I Live Now manages to fuse a teen love story, steeped in alienation and hurt, with a near-future nightmare thriller. As Daisy (real name Elizabeth, but she hates it) arrives in the U.K. for a summer with three cousins and an aunt she doesn't know, armed soldiers patrol the airport, the motorways. Ominous news flashes cross TV screens, flood the airwaves.
The farmhouse, with its dogs and cats and goats dressed as unicorns, is an idyllic hideaway where Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) is too busy with urgent work to pay much heed. Instead, Daisy is left in the company of 14-year-old Isaac (Tom Holland), a brainy goofball, and with the youngest cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), keen to share her fantasies with her American relative.
But when Daisy comes face to face with her eldest cousin, Eddie (George MacKay), strapping and solitary - training his hawk and fetching things from the woods - you can feel the shudder run through her. Maybe this summer won't be so bad after all. (It might be a little icky, though.)
But How I Live Now takes some frightening, gruesome turns. In tone and terror, it comes close to matching the jumpy dread of Danny Boyle's British Isles virus thriller 28 Days Later . . .. At the same time, Macdonald, who led Forest Whitaker to his Oscar in The Last King of Scotland, captures the Edenic splendor of woodlands and fields (How I Live Now was shot in Wales) and manages to work the tweedy folk-rock of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake into the equation, too.
When was the last time you saw a movie where a nerve-wracking car ride was accompanied by Sandy Denny singing "Tam Lin," with its maidens in gold and faerie queens?
The second half of How I Live Now is no picnic - what begins with a chilling whoosh of wind transforms into a tale of rampant paranoia and fear, a struggle to survive. Ronan is riveting as this unhappy city kid-turned-determined heroine. She may not live to see the morning, but a darkness has lifted.
How I Live Now ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. With Saiorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, and Anna Chancellor. Distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, intense action, gore, profanity, sex, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ