Suddenly, that Grim Reaper T-shirt seems a little tacky.
  • Suddenly, that Grim Reaper T-shirt seems a little tacky.
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A new study, published in the journal Pediatrics, has found that in 2012, the mean level of gun violence in PG-13 films exceeded the level of gun violence in R-rated films. That’s just gun violence — never mind the vampire-werewolf carnage of Twilight or the supermen-inflicted devastation of Man of Steel or the disappearing-pencil trick of The Dark Knight or the medieval-style slaughter of The Hunger Games.

How I Live Now ***

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Of course, all that death-dealing is tinged with the fantastical, so maybe it’s okay. What’s apparently not okay is a couple of realistically depicted shootings — no excessive gore or drama, just a bullet going in and some blood coming out and a body where a person used to be. It’s also not okay to show a pile of dead bodies, post-execution. That’s got to be it. Because otherwise, now that PG-13 films are allowed a nonsexual f-bomb, I’m pretty sure the post-nuclear teen survival pic How I Live Now wouldn’t have been slapped with a rating that negates its primary audience. (The official explanation is that it’s rated R for “violence, disturbing images, language, and some sexuality.”)

It’s a shame; it really is. Because director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland) has made the teen movie that Twilight maybe should have been, that The Hunger Games maybe is down under all the glam, that Harry Potter probably was without the class metaphors. But thanks to that R, how many teens are likely to see it (at least in theaters)?

Daisy (Saoirse Ronan, here given a fine frame for her stony expression) is an American girl in exile: at the film’s outset, she arrives in the English country home of her cousins, relatives of her dead mother. (Dad’s back in New York, and he isn’t calling.) The madcap, ramshackle kids-making-their-own-world feel of the place is laid on a bit thick, but we’re arriving with damaged, dour Daisy; our experience is filtered through hers. (Macdonald even gives us the voices in her head, reciting the sort of self-help platitudes you might read in magazines.)

Happily and unhappily, there is a boy: Eddie, played with ruddy stoicism by George MacKay. But just as things start to get complicated (cousins!), all the old rules are destroyed: a nuclear bomb goes off in London, sending a blast of wind and a rain of ash upon the accidentally abandoned children. Suddenly, England is at war on its home turf. Suddenly, it’s time to grow up and choose a life. Daisy chooses her new family, but war has a way of breaking families apart, and getting them back together — well, that’s the work of the story.

It’s thrilling, and it’s thrilling because it feels just real enough. There’s no magic curse on the land. Instead, there’s a rumor of a poisoned water supply, and that rumor is enough to make you trudge through lush, stream-ridden countryside while you’re dying of thirst. There’s no mystical authority. Instead, there’s martial law that makes you a prisoner in the name of protecting you. There’s no army of monsters. Instead, there are men at war, doing the sort of awful things that men at war sometimes do. And finally, there’s no alternatingly ecstatic and tortured affair. Instead, there is the hard work of love.

Maybe it’s that degree of felt reality that makes the film’s few instances of violence too intense for a PG-13. But it’s also what won me over.

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