If I Stay (United States, 2014)August 21, 2014
If I Stay answers the burning question of what The Sixth Sense might look like if the screenplay had been written by Nicholas Sparks. Of course, Sparks had nothing to do with this film - it's based on a popular YA novel written by Gayle Forman - but that's the vibe. The supernatural element that differentiates this from every other teen romance novel is underemployed. The plot device could have been used in countless different and interesting ways, but it isn't. Distilled to its essence, If I Stay represents an unremarkable opposites-attract high school love affair. What gives it life and keeps us interested isn't the flashback structure or the use of a ghostly apparition but the luminous performance of Chloe Grace Moretz.
The movie's "present" is a snow day for Portland's schools. High school senior Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) accompanies her parents, Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), and her young brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies), on a family outing that ends in tragedy. 15 minutes into If I Stay, Mia is in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Denny and Teddy are also en route but Kat is pronounced dead at the car accident scene. At this point, the story diverges from the norm by having a "spirit Mia" accompany Mia's body to the hospital. This "spirit Mia" can move and observe, but not interact. Most importantly, she can remember, and this allows her to relate the story of Mia's past life while the teenager's future hangs in the balance.
Although much screen time is devoted to the romance between cellist Mia and rock-and-roll band singer Adam (Jamie Blackley), their love story is sufficiently generic to strike a few sour notes. The chemistry between the actors is lukewarm and the Mia/Adam coupling seems more like one of those desperate high school pairings that flares brightly and burns out rather than the potential anchor capable of keeping an indecisive girl's spirit from fleeing her broken body. If director R.J. Cutler was trying to achieve something profound with this romance, he misses the mark. On the other hand, one aspect that works is Mia's loving relationship with her parents and brother. At a time when almost every screen family is dysfunctional, it's refreshing to encounter one in which both parents love each other and their children and where strife is minimal and support is emphasized. There are a lot of nice little touches and, as the flashbacks unfold, this magnifies the tragedy. In the end, the love between Mia and Adam seems like a paltry, artificial thing when seen in the shadow of the bigger picture.
The movie plays to the same crowd that adored this summer's better, more heartfelt drama, The Fault in Our Stars. That movie was smarter, better written, and earned its tears. If I Stay demands that viewers bring Kleenexes to the theater but the story is more obviously manipulative and it lacks the freshness and wit that kept The Fault in Our Stars from becoming depressing. Although If I Stay tries to be life-affirming, it's more of a downer because the film's frequent returns to the grim, uncertain present cast a pall over everything.
The acting is solid across the breadth of the cast, with all the actors fitting nicely into their roles. Mortez is especially good; she brings humanity and believability to Mia. That we sympathize deeply with the plight of this character is as much Mortez's doing as it is the screenplay's. As the apparition, Moretz is suitably dazed and confused, but she shines in the flashbacks by conveying the thrills and heartbreak of first love with conviction. Another acting standout is Stacy Keach, the veteran tough guy who stays mostly in the background playing Mia's grandfather until the script gives him an opportunity for a moving bedside monologue.
One of the most curious aspects of If I Stay is the way it rigorously ignores religion and spirituality. With the exception of an undefined "white light" image that recurs, the movie never once mentions "God" (as an entity). For a movie that is so much about death, it seems like an odd omission. I don't know if this is a characteristic of the book but it seems that a character stuck in limbo might be curious about an afterlife and the principalities controlling her existence. The movie's unwillingness to go to this level, perhaps believing it to be too deep or existential for the target audience, is its most significant failing. If I Stay offers an adequate love story but a shallow exploration of bigger issues.
If I Stay (United States, 2014)
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach
Screenplay: Shauna Cross, based on the novel by Gayle Forman
Cinematography: John de Borman
Music: Heitor Pereira
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers