Directed by: R. J. Cutler
Premise: Based on the novel by Gayle Forman. A car wreck puts a musically gifted teenager (Chloë Grace Moretz) into a coma. She awakens in an out-of-body experience and witnesses her friends and family suffering through loss. She must decide whether to return to flesh and blood life or to cross over into the hereafter.
What Works: As an adaptation of a young adult novel, If I Stay will probably appease its target audience. Like most young adult movie adaptations with a female protagonist, If I Stay is about a young woman experiencing her first love and it tells that love story pretty well. The romance plays out between a teenage cellist, played by Chloë Grace Moretz, and her slightly older rock and roll boyfriend, played by Jamie Blackley. Moretz is very good in the role, in part because it’s written much more intelligently than equivalent parts in similar stories. Unlike Bella of Twilight or even Hazel of The Fault in Our Stars, Moretz’s role as Mia in If I Stay has much more integrity. She is an intelligent young woman who has an identity outside of her relationship but at the same time she possesses vulnerability. That is one of the outstanding qualities of the movie. The characters of most teenage romances are often played by actors who are too old for the parts, but the central cast of If I Stay look and behave like authentic teenagers. The film is also successful in its portrayal of the family. For some reason most parents in movies of this sort (especially indie titles) don’t have recognizable jobs and are often self-consciously quirky. The parents of If I Stay are former rock and rollers who have settled down but still have an appreciation for the music. Like the portrayal of the teenagers, the parents balance quirkiness with humanity and come across as authentic characters.
What Doesn’t: If I Stay has some vivid characters but the filmmakers aren’t able to put them or their stories to very good use and the movie suffers from some underlying story problems. The plot of If I Stay is really two movies mashed together: it’s a teenage coming of age story that has been chopped up and intercut with a philosophical drama and the moviemakers never reconcile these two parts into a coherent whole. On their own, either story is potentially quite good. The romance between the teenagers, played by Chloë Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley, is engaging and believable and the metaphysical drama in the hospital presents a compelling situation. However, the story is structured in a nonlinear fashion, cutting backwards and forwards, filling in the backstory of the romance while playing out the events in the hospital. Instead of complementing each other, each story segment tends to dilute and offset the gains of the other narrative. The philosophical question of the story—whether to awaken to a catastrophe or to pass away in blissful ignorance—is never developed in a meaningful way. At no point does it seem like passing into the afterlife is a serious consideration for Moretz’s character because a situation never arises in which she is really presented with that choice. Hinging a life and death choice on a teenage romance is absurd, or at least it will appear so to viewers who are past their teenage years. Although the filmmakers create a real female character, they undermine her in the ending by making her relationship to reason to return to life. This is an absurd way to value life, especially in story where the two lovers have already broken up and the filmmakers have gone through great pains to make it clear that their heroine is more than a girlfriend.
Bottom Line: If I Stay has some strong performances and the target audience is likely to enjoy it. But the film is inconsistent and sometimes stupid in the way it imagines life, love, and death.
Episode: #506 (August 31, 2014)