Ever since she burst onto the scene in "Atonement," playing a girl with an overly fertile imagination in a performance that earned her an Oscar nod at age 13, Saoirse Ronan has been one of the most interesting young faces on the big screen.
Her precocious, quirky and intelligent look, almost like a pre-teen Meryl Streep, has evolved now into a more mature beauty, and the actress, now 19, remains just as interesting to watch, if not more so.
Her latest film, the post-apocalyptic "How I Live Now," based on the 2004 young adult novel by Meg Rosoff, feels something like "The Hunger Games" sprinkled with a liberal dose of "Pretty in Pink" or any basic teen coming-of-age story. Like in "Atonement," the personal journey unfolds in the shadow of world war — only here, it's not World War II.
No, it's World War III, which begins almost immediately after Daisy, a self-absorbed young American with bleached-blond hair, fashionably ripped black tights and plenty of eye makeup, arrives in Britain, sent by her father to spend the summer with distant cousins in the country. She's not thrilled. When friendly cousin Isaac (a sweet Tom Holland) fetches her at the airport, the first thing she does is mock his accent.
At the ramshackle country home, Daisy imposes her "rules" on everyone else; she doesn't eat wheat or cow's cheese, because it's gross. Invited out fishing, she sniffs: "I don't fish."
But it's not hard to see that behind the icy veneer lies raging insecurity — she's a teenager! — and in any case her "rules" will change fast once she gets to know her handsome older cousin Edmond (George MacKay, appealing in a stoic way). Edmond, or Eddie, can tame hawks, and pretty quickly tames Daisy. There's not much buildup here: Daisy goes from haughty to goo-goo eyed, and soon she's in a full-fledged love affair.
Meanwhile, the world is convulsing. A nuclear explosion in London kills thousands and coats the idyllic countryside with white nuclear dust — a scene hauntingly portrayed by skilled director Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland") and cinematographer Franz Lustig. Soon the country's operating under brutal martial law. Purposely, basic questions — who's in charge? who's doing what, to whom? — are left unanswered.
Clearly this is a choice by director Macdonald to focus the drama squarely on Daisy and her emotional journey. But sometimes it's an uncomfortable mix. Millions are dying, and we're worrying about one young woman's romantic yearnings, and slowly emerging self-esteem?
In any case, girls are soon separated from boys, and Daisy and her youngest cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), are shipped off to forced labor. In a desperate effort to return home to the others (and especially Eddie), Daisy learns just how fierce she can be. It will take a grueling trek for many miles, under threat of rape by marauding gangs, or worse.
Macdonald's at his best in the scenes evoking what's happening to a collapsing country (and perhaps, the planet.) On a more intimate scale, there are a few genuinely moving moments. Then again, there's some unnecessarily banal dialogue.
There's a clear message here: Sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances to realize it, but we all have the capacity to shed our petty concerns and focus on the greater good. (Even if you have to eat Spam to survive an apocalypse.) Plus, even the neediest of us can step up, when necessary, and care for others.
That will resonate best for a teen audience, but here's the rub: The movie is rated R for its violence and occasional language. But is this really something harder to stomach than the PG-13 rated "Hunger Games"? And will the rating be keeping out the audience that would most readily respond to its message?
"How I Live Now," a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence, disturbing images, language and some sexuality." Running time: 101 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.