Based on Gayle Forman’s bestselling teen novel, “If I Stay” should certainly appeal to its target demo. It alternately seems engineered for tears, giggles and swoons, and it shouldn’t have an issue with making adolescent girls, go through all of those in turn. Chloë Grace Moretz’s Mia Hall is an identifiable, admirable heroine, who isn’t quite the outsider she was in “Carrie,” but she still carries that teenage worry of being set apart from her peers. Meanwhile, her love interest Adam (Jamie Blackley, “Snow White and the Huntsmen”) is the perfect amount of sweet and smoldering for the audience. If BOP magazine were still around, Blackley would be its cover boy, adorning the lockers of high schoolers everywhere.
In contrast to this year’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” “If I Stay” takes a less grounded approach to the idea of dying. For Mia, the prospect of death arrives quickly, breaking into a cheerful, snowy day. She and her family are driving down an Oregon road when a car accident throws Mia from the vehicle. She wakes up in the snow to find her parents’ car surrounded by paramedics. She is confused to see herself being worked on by the EMTs and hear that she may be dying. Once she arrives at the hospital, she stands over her own unconscious body, yelling “Wake up!” A nurse (Aisha Hinds, “Under the Dome“) holds her hand, telling her that they’re doing all they can. It’s up to her to fight and pull through to survive.
The film proceeds to flash back through Mia’s life, giving a glimpse of her relationship with her cooler-than-cool Portland parents, played by Mireille Enos (“The Killing”) and Joshua Leonard (“Humpday”). They’re heavy into the local rock scene, but to their surprise Mia falls hard for the cello early in her life, and she devotes all her time to the instrument. It’s her cello playing that attracts the interest of Adam. Their relationship serves as the focus of the film, with love and creative ambition driving them together and apart and back together again. Adam’s band is big in Portland (and expanding elsewhere), while Mia has the chance to audition for Juilliard, and the impending distance threatens their love. “If I Stay” bounces between the flashbacks of these relationships and back into the hospital as friends and family come to visit her, hoping for improvement from her comatose state.
Moretz is great here, able to rise above the voiceover and dialogue she’s given. And thank goodness, because she’s in almost every frame. She’s authentic throughout the film; her look when Adam first reaches for her hand has the perfect mixture of surprise, joy and fear, and her anguish over the tragedy of the accident feels real. As Adam, Blackley is well-cast, able to manage both playing the charismatic frontman for a rock band while romancing — and fighting with — Moretz’s Mia.
Despite the focus on the romance, we were more swayed by her interactions with her parents and her grandfather (a particularly good Stacy Keach). We largely were able to hold it together until a few well-timed, tear-inducing speeches by Keach’s Gramps. Practically every time he appeared on screen, we were reaching for the stash of toilet paper we’d grabbed from the movie theater bathroom. That felt more genuine than the relationship between Mia and Adam, despite the pair’s good chemistry. Credit also goes to Leonard and especially Enos. As Mia’s rock-loving, free-spirited mother, she’s so far from the role most people know her from in “The Killing.” She’s warm and funny, and she’s able to imbue her scenes with emotion.
However, what makes it lack crossover appeal to adults is largely its script. What likely appealed to readers on the page in Forman’s novel doesn’t quite work on the screen, particularly the conversations between the two young lovers. Once said aloud, the words seem as silly as they likely are. One could argue that this pushes the film closer to reality since teenagers’ romantic statements likely aren’t the poetry we remember them to be, but even so, to our ears in the film, it falls flat.
This is a departure for director R.J. Cutler, most famous for documentaries like “The September Issue” and “The World According to Dick Cheney.” He’s done some TV work on the fun, soapy “Nashville,” which makes for an easy to transition to this film. The element that should have been the most challenging for the film — Mia’s out-of-body experience — isn’t one of the problems. Instead, this was capably handled both from the director as well as from the talented Moretz (and the cast members who have to pretend not to see her). There were some continuity issues, as well as some moments that left us with a raised eyebrow or a shake of the head, however, the flaws lie mainly with the script from Shauna Cross or the source material in Forman’s novel. Cross ably adapted her own novel into the screenplay for “Whip It,” but then faltered with “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” This adaptation didn’t require quite the leap that the motherhood manual did, but instead of giving us a really good cry, but the film wasn’t engaging enough to even smudge our mascara. [C+]