I couldn't help but think about The Fault in Our Stars, a vastly superior film, while I was watching this film based upon a popular YA novel by Gayle Forman. It's not so much that the two films are similar in story or structure, but that the films share a common thread of life and love and loss viewed through the lens of young people who are just beginning to comprehend what these words mean.
The Fault in Our Stars traveled this journey rather sublimely with heart and humor and honesty amidst the tragedies and painful truths and uncertainties that unfolded.
If I Stay is, on the other hand, a miscalculated and manipulated effort that hits occasional moments of refreshing honesty mostly owing to a performance by Chloe Grace Moretz that far transcends the source material and the performances of co-supporting players Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard as her parents.
The story's young adult "bait" is a love story that plays out with unfortunate irrelevance in the film partly because the chemistry between Moretz and Jamie Blackley doesn't convince and partly because Blackley simply doesn't have the screen presence to project the kind of magnetism that we hear, repeatedly, he possesses.
Director R.J. Cutler, a documentarian with fine films such as The September Issue and The World According to Dick Cheney to his name, makes his narrative feature debut here and does so with enough promise that one can mostly forgive the occasional miscalculations and narrative awkwardness.
Now then, as much as I found the love angle of the film to be complete drivel, I wouldn't be that surprised if it ends up working for the film's target audience of those teenagers in the early stages of experiencing real life. It is within the film's first fifteen minutes that our key player, Mia (Moretz), is enjoying a Portland snow day with her father (Joshua Leonard), mother (Mireille Enos), and her brother (Jakob Davies), a day that ends in tragedy as the family vehicle crashes along with Mia's entire world. In one of the film's major differences from The Fault in Our Stars, it is here where a supernatural element is introduced and we learn that Mia is not exactly dead but in a sort of spiritual realm where she is having something similar to an out-of-body experience that allows her to be aware of everything around her including her own comatose body. Invisible to all, she accompanies her comatose self to the hospital and learns the fate of her other family members and realizes that she now has a choice as to whether or not she chooses to stay or follow that white light.
Working off Shauna Cross's adaptation of Forman's novel, Cutler not entirely successfully allows the film to exist by shuttling back and forth between the hospital, the family, and Mia's relationship with Adam (Jamie Blackley).
With a narrative voice-over by Mia, an intrusive idea that never works, we learn about Mia's life and that on the day of the car crash she was awaiting word from Juilliard as to her admission. A gifted cello player, Mia is the product of two punk rockin' parents and has been in a relationship with Adam, already the frontman for an up-and-coming rock band called the Willamette Stone. The two lovebirds are wildly different but, of course, this is YA material and we know that such opposites inevitably attract. Plus, let's be honest, the two are absolutely gorgeous.
There is never really any doubt about where If I Stay is going, but the film gets by on the quality of its cast and the predictable yet fundamentally warm nature of its material. For anyone familiar with Moretz's work, it's hard not to consider this type of material far beneath her. That said, she adds an emotional resonance and zest to the material that keeps you watching and, at the very least, allows you to care about Mia even if you don't particularly care about anyone else here.
Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos are also warm and convincing as Mia's parents, refreshingly devoid of conflict and clearly good parents who love one another and who try to do the best they can for their children. While there's almost no warmth and conviction between Mia and Adam, there's a considerable amount between Mia and her parents. Stacy Keach is also a welcome presence.
It's not so much that Blackley is weak here. In fact, he's not particularly weak. He's simply not particularly well matched with Moretz despite the fact that the two look devastatingly beautiful together. He doesn't project the magnetism one would expect from a promising rock band, but he also lacks the emotional range that would allow for a convincing relationship with Moretz's Mia.
If I Stay, I'm guessing, will be for the most part welcomed by fans of Forman's novel and by those young adults who've been waiting for another film to champion as we hit the fall viewing season. While it lasts a bit too long and isn't nearly as good as it could have been, it's a film that ultimately finds its dramatic footing and ends in such a way that you are likely to leave the theater satisfied for having experienced it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic