Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an 18-year-old Portland cellist preparing for college. For the past year and a half, she’s fallen in love with an older student, an indie rocker named Adam (Jamie Blackley). But their relationship has been strained of late, as their plans for life after high school are too divergent.
But on the very day she expects to receive the letter from Juilliard that will dictate her future, she and her family are involved in a deadly car accident. She wakes up—or, rather, her soul does—and observes the unfolding tragedy in the snow-capped disaster area and eventually the hospital emergency room, where paramedics wheel her comatose body and those of her parents and younger brother. Mia is balanced precariously between life and death; to paraphrase The Clash, whose posters and T-shirts turn up in the movie’s production design, the film’s essential question becomes, “Should I stay or should I go?”
I expect the chasm between the critics’ response to “If I Stay” and the audience reception to be a vast one. This is a film that will move a lot of people very deeply, but one man’s poignant masterpiece is another’s mawkish drek. I was all too aware of every time I was supposed to laugh, and cry, and cry some more, and feel the bright light of a universe in which predestiny, love and free swirl into powerful catharses. Each of these moments is a tasty worm dangled by its director, R.J. Cutler, in front of the hungry fish in the audience; I just couldn’t take the bait.
Without the out-of-body-experience conceit, “If I Stay” would play like a garden-variety YA drama, in which a teenager’s first romantic pangs are presented with cataclysmic implications. These may be average upper-middle-class white people’s problems, but to the experiencers of them, they are life and death, even before the narrative becomes literally about life and death.
The story is, unsurprisingly, based on a successful 2009 young-adult novel of the same name, by Gayle Forman. Shauna Cross’s time-jumping screenplay, structured mostly as flashbacks triggered by memories that flood Mia’s soul, admittedly has some nice touches. Mia’s parents are both middle-aged punk rockers who met through her dad’s old band, Nasty Bruises, which he sacrificed to build a family; at one point, when Mia’s younger brother Teddy asks to listen to Iggy Pop in the car, her father cautions him: “Nothing after 1978!” The disparity between the rough-hewn musical tastes of Mia’s laissez-faire parents and the rigid classical structure of her own sonic proclivities is a point of frequent tension and poignancy. And, once we realize that her parents may never breathe again, these domestic flashbacks do become moving, because we understand the finiteness of them—the need to preserve these memories like specimens in amber.
But even these moments are ultimately the stuff of fantasy. Cross and Cutler created characters orbiting around Mia that are faultless—the perfect parents and the perfect younger brother, saints waiting for their heavenly beatification. Her home life isn’t messy, like that of 99.9 percent of teenage girls. Instead the atmosphere is pretty and curated, an artificially manicured space of bustling neighborhood parties and sage advice. The drama, then, arrives largely in the form of boyfriend Adam, whose music—which sounds far too studio-polished for the tiny clubs in which he plays, another example of the movie’s airbrushed approach—is more appealing than his persona. He’s your typical brooding, tortured rocker, stretched nearly to the point of self-parody, and let’s leave it at that.
The great Stacey Keach rounds out the cast as Mia’s grandfather, who is gifted a monologue at her bedside that suggests the Oscar he never won. At the screening I attended, this is the moment the waterworks finally turned on for even the most skeptical of moviegoers. But even here, Cutler doesn’t trust the moment. For a movie that knows its quality music inside and out, it can’t resist blanketing the scene with a schmaltzy piano score, and I was too aware of being manipulated to succumb to the emotions.
And besides, it’s just prologue for the tactless barrage of sentimentality that batters us into submission in the film’s final moments, leaving me desiring, for Mia, neither the pearly gates of Valhalla nor her continued life on Earth. I just wanted the darn thing to end.
“If I Stay” opens Friday at most area theaters.