Move over dystopia. Who needs to worry about the world ending when this girl’s life is?
It would appear that a new trend is developing in YA fiction and especially YA adaptations if this summer’s The Fault in Our Stars and If I Stay are any indication: the (desirous) fear of dying young like a Band Perry song, complete with the redemptive power of young true love. The fact that the June version of this tale was able to find more grace and authenticity in this dreamy tragedy than R.J. Cutler’s If I Stay will likely matter little for the target audience of young viewers. Not before the heady power of a beautiful union between love and death. And in this potentially doomed romance of the pretty young faces of Chloe Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley, it looks ever so appealing, if also a little nauseating.
Based on Gayle Forman’s bestselling novel, If I Stay is a conceptually terrifying premise of a young girl being forced to choose between a suddenly wrecked life and death, with each passing scene drawing her closer to the latter. Mia Hall (Moretz) is only 17-years-old when her perfect adolescence becomes anything but that. Beloved by two hard-rocking parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) in Portland, they cleaned up their act to raise Mia, but not their laidback and super-cool™ ways.
In the alternative city, Mia finds herself drawn to the classics, particularly the cello. A huge fan of Beethoven, she is one to insist that the play her “pal Ludwig” in the car over the sounds of Iggy Pop. But they are more than accommodating, because Mia has a genuine gift for her stringed instrument that they hope will take her all the way to Juilliard.
At the very least, it gets the attention of Adam (Blackley) that boy in school who “already is the person he’s supposed to be.” He also sees that future for Mia when he observes her playing in the high school rehearsal room. He’s a year older, and the lead singer and guitarist of his own band that is already getting gigs in Seattle; he’s punk rock and she’s sheltered by choice. Obviously, it’s love at first sight.
Yet, viewers know that their love story might be an ill-fated one right off the bat, because it is told entirely in flashback, as well as the rest of Mia’s life. The movie actually begins on a fateful snowy morning with Mia, her parents, and baby brother Teddy (Jakob Davies) in the car as a truck driver skids on the ice from another lane and plows head-on into them. In an instant her parents and brother are gone, and Mia, who hours earlier was thinking of her soaring Juilliard audition in San Francisco, is now lying comatose in a hospital between life and death. Thus it is up to her out-of-body, astral projected self to choose the path of an orphan or that of a youthful martyr as her remaining friends and family gather around her, spawning a brief lifetime of memories and flashbacks to her lost family, her passion for music, and of course Adam.
Moretz has carved out genuine stardom in young Hollywood during the last few years. After her franchise-stealing performance as a gleeful purple ball of death named Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, she has appeared in a string of impressively sophisticated roles, including as the forsaken vampire in Matt Reeves’ Let Me In and as a precocious youth in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Yet, If I Stay marks not only her first transitional role to YA, but her first performance as a well-adjusted girl without any idiosyncrasies. And she seems strangely unable to grasp onto such normalcy.
A gifted young actress with a vast reservoir of charisma, Moretz maintains that charm which has netted her almost every teenage girl part in Hollywood, but in her first plainly movie star vehicle, there is an anxious self-consciousness not coming solely from her demure character.
Blackley fairs better as the most sensitive of would-be rock stars who falls-head-over-heels in love. Underplaying the inherent schmaltziness of it all, he does well enough at selling this one-year romance that cycles from wintry and springtime joys to post-Labor Day blues as one another’s musical pursuits are leading them to live on different coasts. Unfortunately, the romance is not helped by heavy-handed groaners such as “You can’t go back into the rehearsal room. I see you,” and earnest proclamations about moving in together when she turns 18.
The real strength of the movie, however, lies with Enos and Leonard as Mia’s parents. Like most of Shauna Cross’ script, which is so syrupy that it’s a wonder the ink didn’t run off the page, their characters are a little too cute by half when they actually hide at the window to encourage their daughter to stay out past curfew with the boyfriend. But as a pair of 30-somethings who are clearly still trying to figure out how to be parents, they bring the actual warmth that If I Stay aspires to in their scenes, particularly when it is about nudging Mia toward Juilliard with dad’s recording equipment, or when they just throw backyard parties for the neighborhood.
In one of the movie’s earliest flashbacks, a young Mia is staying up all hours of the night playing the cello well into the wee small hours of the morning. Her folks, still in their rocker clothes, with Leonard sporting shaggy long hair to boot, just listen outside her door. Realizing that their child was that talented and creating something that special, they cannot even find the words to articulate their pride. “It’s just…” Leonard’s awe-inspired father says, for once not having a clunky line crashing into the scene like falling timber. Instead he just listens.
It may not be angsty or teenage, but for an ephemeral moment, If I Stay found the life-affirming love it was looking for. It’s a shame the rest of the movie is more akin to Lifetime.