What is it about teenage girls clinging to life that speaks so directly to the YA audience? Earlier this summer, Shailene Woodley found a momentary stay from a cruel death sentence in the arms of an impossibly upbeat hunk in The Fault in Our Stars. That film was melodramatic and manipulative, but at least it was packaged with a handful of scenes that felt true (no, not the Anne Frank Museum one). It’s hard to say the same for R.J. Cutler’s If I Stay.
Based on Gayle Forman’s best-selling tearjerker novel, the film stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a shy Portland high school cellist named Mia Hall. As the story opens, Mia’s at home with her younger brother (Jakob Davies) and her parents (The Killing’s Mireille Enos and Higher Ground’s Joshua Leonard), who can’t stop reminding their kids just how hip they used to be. They toss off references to Iggy Pop and Debbie Harry like cheap shorthand confetti, never realizing that if they really were cool, they wouldn’t have to keep repeating it over and over. Not that Mia would care anyway. Her musical hero is Yo-Yo Ma.
After school is called off for a snow day, the family decides to distract Mia, who’s nervously awaiting a decision letter from Juilliard in the mail, with a scenic car ride. Bad idea. They endure a horrific accident, and Mia wakes up amid the wreckage, standing over the injured bodies of not only her family members…but also of herself. No one can hear her or see her. She’s in some sort of helpless metaphysical limbo. At the hospital, she races from operating room to operating room, willing her family to pull through. Teetering between life and death, Mia reflects on her life and whether she wants to keep living—a choice, according to one of the least believable ER nurses in movie history, that is up to her. From there, the movie becomes a string of flashbacks to the key moments in Mia’s life with her family, friends, music, and most crucially for If I Stay’s target demographic, her boyfriend, Adam—an earnest, non-threatening bad-boy rocker played by Snow White and the Huntsman’s Jamie Blackley, who seems to be channeling the young Johnny Depp (or at least the young Skeet Ulrich). It’s only a matter of time before we witness the young lovers passionately embrace and talk about ”making music together.”
Like The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay paints teen romance as little more than a wish fulfillment fairy tale. Boys like Blackley and Fault’s Ansel Elgort always seem to be there with a sweeping gesture, a sensitive ear, and whispered promises about how their love will last until the end of time—if not longer. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Young women should expect men to be chivalrous and kind. But there’s something about the way that Hollywood keeps churning out these puppy-dog knights that I suspect will lead to a lot of disappointment and broken hearts a few years from now. These Romeos are unrealistic fantasies.
At just 17, Moretz is already an actress with enough smarts and self-possession to convince you that Mia has her head screwed on straight. Bach is just as important to her as her boyfriend—a choice that comes into sharp relief when she has to decide between staying in Portland with Adam or heading off to Juilliard in New York. Still, as believable and relatable as Moretz’s wallflower is, the supernatural story swirling around her is so mawkishly rigged to work your tear ducts that it squanders whatever honesty she invests in it. The other stand-out in the film is Stacy Keach, who, in a pair of scenes as Mia’s grieving grandfather, shows how much better the film could have been if it were more interested in real sentiment than gooey sap.
I suspect that the problem may lie with the man behind the camera, R.J. Cutler, a director better known for documentaries (The September Issue, A Perfect Candidate) than slick, three-hankie studio fare. You’d think that someone so used to working in non-fiction would have a better handle on realism. But If I Stay never bothers to go after authenticity when there’s a cliché hovering nearby. That may not be enough of a drawback to prevent teenage audiences from lapping up the movie with a spoon, but they certainly deserve better. C-