R.J Cutler’s “If I Stay”—based on the book by Gayle Forman—is really two movies in one; the first is about the blossoming love between a shy cello player and a cool leather jacket-wearing hunk in a rock band. The second concerns the same cello player Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) in a coma after a car accident kills her entire family. While in the coma Mia’s soul can walk around out of body and she must decide whether she wants to stay with her leather jacket-wearing fellow Adam (Jamie Blackley) or pass on to the next world.
In other words, the teen romance angle isn’t strong enough to carry the story on its own so Forman felt the need to throw in the semi supernatural tearjerker element. And while the teen romance angle isn’t very compelling, it’s the supernatural tearjerker element that throws the movie into extreme sappiness and stupidity.
Mia is your typical quiet good girl who mostly keeps to herself, having only one loyal friend. She’s a Classical music nerd—she has a sticker in her school locker that says, “I Heart Yo Yo Ma”-- and is self conscious about it. However, her musical talent catches the ear—and the eye—of older boy Adam. With his rugged good looks and laid-back attitude, Adam is a typical teen girl fantasy boyfriend. A cool cat that falls in love with the quiet nerd girl? And accepts her for who she is? Anyway, they fall and love and everything seems to be going great, until Bam! A family drive on a snowy road turns tragic. Mia is left an orphan and in a coma—bummer, right? —and through flashbacks told by her out of body soul we get the backstory on her and Adam’s romance and the events leading up to the accident.
The teen romance flashbacks aren’t nearly as bad as I thought they would be. I fully expected to be rolling my eyes within the first ten minutes or so. It’s more that they’re just so flat line and dull. Everything feels so tame and unremarkable. And for a movie about teenagers, the situation feels far too neat and tidy. Mia has a cool boyfriend who sees her for who she is, she has two hip ex rocker parents—played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard—who are very supportive of her and give the perfect advice when its needed. There’s not much conflict, and the only conflict there is the usual boyfriend/girlfriend ups and downs—both Mia and Adam want to pursue their musical dreams—and Mia moping around, afraid that’s she’s not good enough for Adam. Which, by the way, gets really annoying after a while. Here she is, an ultra talented musician and she’s worried about a guy. I know this isn’t new ground in teen movies, but that’s the problem. We’ve seen this too many times.
While nothing in the flashbacks is actively bad it all feels underwhelming and derivative. The screenplay by Shuana Cross just sort of hums along, hitting the usual beats. The dialogue, for the most part, is poorly written. Characters say certain cliché statements—“I thought I had it all planned out,” “Things can change in an instant,”—as if they’re profound and insightful, there are some awkward attempts at humor—Mia saying early on she would like to “lick Adams face”—and finally lines that were clearly meant to be romantic but come off just plain stupid. At one point Mia says, “I want to dive into Adam’s world.” And yet, despite these flaws the flashbacks in “If I Stay” are tolerable, mainly because of Moretz. The seventeen-year-old “Kick Ass” actress is clearly above this material but does a surprisingly good job at playing the shy, nerd girl.
However, “If I Stay” runs into its biggest problems during the “Mia in a coma” segment. Cutler and co. could have subtitled this part of the film as: Mia’s Soul Running Frantically around the Hospital. Putting aside this “a ghost but not actually a ghost” gimmick, all of the drama—more like melodrama—and sadness in the story is concentrated to this part of the film, which proves to be too much. The flashback scenes while derivative never felt over-the-top. “If I Stay” is somehow both underwhelming at overwhelming simultaneously. Moretz’ performance goes from sweet and understated to overdone, yelling and crying. We’re treated to an endless barrage of teary eyed friends and family members having one way conversations with Mia’s comatose body, telling her to “hold on” and “you still have a family” etc. while Mia’s soul watches the action. (Man, the more I think about that gimmick the stupider it sounds). If there was any kind of subtly employed in the flashbacks, none can be found here, the filmmakers try oh so hard to make you cry. And Cutler moves this section along at a snail’s pace, prolonging the inevitable ending.
With a better script and more energetic direction the flashback scenes in “If I Stay” could have actually made a decent teen romance picture by themselves. As I said, Moretz is good here, as well as most of the supporting cast. Even Blackley isn’t unwatchable. But these days, I guess normal none supernatural teen love stories aren’t sellable and so what little is actually good about “If I Stay” is blotted out by the hospital sequences and the superfluous “twist.”
I’m clearly not the target audience, and I’m sure fans of the book and the genre will be satisfied. For the rest of us though, “If I Stay” is yet another lackluster film to come out in this mostly lackluster movie month.