Film Review: If I Stay

Delivers as promised.

If I Stay provides precisely what its core demographic of teen girls will seek from it: a sensitive, handsome and smitten male lead over whom to daydream (he both rocks out and sings acoustic, scoring full aspirational-boyfriend marks for managing to be both sexy and cute); and opportunities for much crying. The film is escapist romantic, featuring lovers whose flaws and hang-ups aren’t so much irritants, such as the rest of us tote about, but rather vulnerabilities that only endear. In fact, there isn’t a dislikable, not to mention unattractive, person on the screen. There is also a moody girl soundtrack that would not be out of place in the cool coffee-shop protagonist Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato) frequent. All of this is to say If I Stay effectively delivers on its promise of a weeper for teenagers. It will not disappoint its market, and it will not convert the uninitiated.

Mia is a talented cellist torn between applying to Juilliard, and applying to a college near her home city of Portland, Oregon, where her boyfriend Adam (Snow White and the Huntsman’s Jamie Blackley) is making a name for himself in a rock band. Along with her younger brother Teddy, Mia is herself the progeny of rockers: Her father is Denny (Joshua Leonard), the former drummer of punk band The Nasty Bruises, now an English teacher; and her mother is Kat (Mireille Enos from “The Killing”), a former riot grrrl, now a part-time real estate agent. Mr. and Mrs. Hall preside over a cozily messy home, the sort with an overgrown front yard that errs on the free-spirited side of unkempt. Mia is Beethoven to her family’s Iggy Pop; she is the brunette to her mother’s redhead. She has always felt herself a straitlaced outsider, and yet it is her very “dorkiness” that catches the eye and ear of Adam. He falls for Mia after having spied her playing alone in an empty classroom long after the other students have packed up and gone.

Not to negate the fraught choice of true love vs. career facing young Mia, but, considering her lovingly supportive family and besotted boyfriend, things could be much worse when her story opens. And then things get much worse. Mia and her family are in a nasty car crash that leaves Mia comatose, her life hanging by the proverbial thread. As the situation grows increasingly bleak, Mia, in an outer-body experience, watches over the stunned hospital vigil of her friends and grandparents (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose), while recalling the events of the past year-and-a-half leading to the accident.

First-time narrative feature director R.J. Cutler, who previously helmed the documentary The September Issue and several episodes of TV’s “Nashville,” working from a script from Whip It screenwriter Shauna Cross, takes his structural cues from the Gayle Forman young-adult novel on which his film is based, and concentrates most of the action within Mia’s flashbacks. As a kindly nurse repeats to Mia, the doctors can only do so much for her: Whether she lives or dies is ultimately up to her, her will to fight, her will to live. The flashbacks establish the stakes, illustrating both what Mia has to live for, and suggesting how difficult her life will be should she stay.

Once again, if one knows the demo to which both novel and film are targeted, one is never much in doubt regarding Mia’s ultimate decision. A bedside scene with Keach comes the closest of any sequence to lending an authentic sense of ambiguity to the filmmakers’ drive for tension, and it is arguably the one most worthy of viewers’ tears. But the film mostly concerns itself with the evolution of Mia and Adam’s relationship, a focus that causes it to sag a bit in its latter half. However, the time expended on the two as they fall in love does result in a story that feels more romantic than another recent YA love story adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars, as the time that film’s cancer-stricken protagonists shared together was, necessarily, briefer.

John de Borman’s bright cinematography helps to offset the potentially dour storyline. A very slowed-down cover of Beyonce’s “Halo” by Ane Brun & Linnéa works well in the de rigueur deflowering scene—not quite the equivalent of the Counting Crows’ “Colorblind” in Cruel Intentions, but, like If I Stay among its multiplying genre brethren, it is a solid addition nonetheless.

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