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Film Review: If I Stay

C-

Directed by

  • R.J. Cutler

Starring

  • Chloë Grace Moretz
  • Mireille Enos
  • Jamie Blackley
  • Joshua Leonard

Release Year

  • 2014

Rating

  • PG-13
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I can’t imagine that there’s anybody over the age of 16 that will enjoy If I Stay without at least a touch of irony. But given the recent popularity of teen melodramas (Twilight, The Fault in Our Stars) and films about life after death (Heaven is for Real), this hybrid of both those genres was bound to get a green light regardless of its quality or necessity. Of course, its projected status as a studio cash cow is only strengthened by the fact that it’s based on Gayle Forman’s hyper-popular young adult novel. Unfortunately for moviegoers, the same source material that gives If I Stay its built-in audience is also responsible for inspiring a screenplay (written by Shauna Cross) that’s eye-rollingly predictable and saccharine.

Chloë Grace Moretz stars as Mia, a young cello prodigy who attracts the attention of Adam (Jamie Blackley), a PG-13 bad boy who fronts a popular local indie band and occasionally drinks beer even though he’s underage (gasp). The googly-eyed kids find themselves caught up in your stereotypical teenage movie courtship, complete with the obligatory awkward first sexual encounter and the even-more-awkward realization that their relationship might not survive if Mia moves across the country to attend Juilliard.

On the home front, things are much easier for our heroine. Her mom (Mireille Enos), a former riot grrrl, and her dad (Joshua Leonard), a former punk-rock drummer, are as nurturing as they are hip. When they’re not giving their daughter dating advice, they’re strutting around their hipster bungalow wearing vintage Sonic Youth t-shirts and arguing over the merits of Iggy Pop’s post-’70s discography with Mia’s little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies). In fact, the film tries so desperately to portray Mia’s parents as cool, that it verges on parody; it’s like the most hilarious episode of Portlandia you’ll ever see. In the theater where I saw the film, at least, every esoteric reference landed with a thud with its tween target audience and inspired unintended chuckles from the few adults present.

Unfortunately for Mia, it takes more than a shared love of the Shins to keep a family together. She learns this lesson the hard way, when her family is involved in a fatal car crash and she’s the only survivor. As Mia’s body lies in a coma, her spirit begins prowling the hospital corridors. She watches as her friends and family hold vigils by her bedside. She looks contemplative as a nurse strokes her hair and tells her that the doctors have done all they can, and that only she can decide to fight and live, or to let go and die. If this is what counts as medical advice nowadays, the American healthcare system is even more broken than I thought.

And so, after a first act that plays out like any other cookie-cutter teen drama, If I Stay throws a wrench into the works and becomes some kind of weird cross between It’s a Wonderful Life and Ghost. This is the first foray into full-length fiction films for director R.J. Cutler, an accomplished documentarian (The September Issue), and his lack of experience begins to show at this point. As Mia struggles with the decision to hop back into her body and be with Adam or to go towards the light, the film’s straightforward narrative morphs into a chronological roller coaster ride marked by a seemingly endless barrage of flashbacks.

But it’s not the nonlinear storytelling that makes this section of the film fumble, it’s the pacing. Mia’s flashbacks, which continue to detail her relationship with Adam, are so long that they overshadow the film’s primary plotline–ya know, the one where Mia’s stuck in limbo until she decides to live or die. It’s more than just an imbalance in screentime, however. The flashbacks chronicling the love story, as cheesy as they are, are still much more engrossing than any of the scenes of Mia’s spirit wandering around the hospital. These scenes consistently fall flat, both tonally and intellectually. With the exception of one tearful monologue from Mia’s grandfather (Stacy Keach), everything that happens in the current timeline is so overwrought and dull that I began pining for the subtlety and emotional complexity of a Lifetime movie.

In the end, that’s kind of what If I Stay is, really. It’s a ridiculous, rationality-be-damned chick flick for teens. I’m sure it will be the topic du jour at hundreds of junior high cafeterias once school’s back in session, but the movie’s charms, if they exist at all, just went over my thirtysomething head.

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