Any young adult movie that arrives in cinemas with the phrase “based on the bestselling novel” pasted on the poster below the image of a young starlet is going to be greeted with a certain level of suspicion. What is it this time? Vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? If I Stay might separate itself from its peers by not actually being set in a fantasy world (as such), but the genre’s preoccupation with tragedy and death still engulfs the film.
Chloe Moretz, who’s a perplexing choice for the film from the start, plays teen cello progeny Mia, who is forced to choose between life and death when her family get into an horrific car accident. Her excursions in limbo/the hallways of the hospital she and her family were brought to after the crash are weaved between flashbacks detailing the year leading up to the event, slowly revealing how much is at stake for Mia if she chooses to leave.
At 18, her main concerns are about college applications and the new boy in her life, Adam (Jamie Blackley), between which she will have to choose when it comes time for her Julliard audition. As much as the movie is about the love story, and it really does focus on it quite heavily, it’s also a film about a girl and her connection to music, what it means to her family and how it might influence her future. That’s what sets it apart, and it’s as good of an emotional thread as any.
When I saw the film, I was sitting behind a gaggle of younger girls all excited for the film, expecting to cry, and I’ll say they didn’t leave disappointed. If I Stay may be criticised for gearing itself so firmly at its target audience, but it’s unwillingness to talk down to them shouldn’t be overlooked. Where so many similar films promote unhealthy relationships and mindless sacrifice, this has some nice, heartfelt messages at its heart.
It also allows the question of love or career to be explored by both genders at the same time (though its slightly ruined by the end), which is sadly quite rare. The musical sequences never appear fake, though I’m sure those who are looking for the join will notice clues that Moretz isn’t actually the cello aficionado she seems, and the relationships between both Mia and her family and Mia and Adam have some pleasant, genuine touches that keep the film from becoming just another vapid Nicholas Sparks-wannabe.
But the big decision Mia is tasked with making is also probably the film’s downfall, which chugs along capably during the comparatively low-stakes flashback sequences. The toing and froing goes on for far too long, and the trajectory of Mia’s state of mind never really gels with what’s going on in the other scenes. Any praise heaped upon the themes and ideas of If I Stay are almost immediately nullified by how little the film makes use of its many compelling ingredients.
For some reason the film chooses to tell its story in chronological order, rather than something that could have stood to be a little more experimental with the constraints of time. This makes the resolution feel needlessly calculated, rather than life-affirming or tearjerking as was probably intended. The choice between life and death for Mia is heavy-handedly compared to the choice between going to college and following her rock star boyfriend around on tour, which doesn’t quite sit right.
There are characters that come and go who I’m sure were a bigger part of the novel on which If I Stay is based, and, despite the presence of an actress as talented as Moretz, those endless sequences in which she runs from room to room in the hospital are really quite tedious. Since these are also the moments which aim to be the most emotional fraught, that’s a bigger problem than you might imagine.
Half of the film is a mildly entertaining teen drama with two lovely leads and a semi-decent exploration of youthful ambition versus adolescent love but, though the mistakes come off bold rather than lazy, the other half of the movie is enough to ruin it. It never sees its numerous good ideas through to anything approaching emotional poignancy and, while there’s certainly a demographic who’ll lap it up, If I Stay adheres to the worst aspects of its genre as well as its best.
If I Stay is out in UK cinemas now.
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