I went into “If I Stay” with a song by The Clash in my head.
Based on a popular young adult novel by Gayle Forman, the film centers around a young woman who must choose between life and death so “Should I Stay or Should I Go” seemed a pretty natural fit.
Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is caught between here and the afterlife after a devastating car crash. The audience is along for every excruciating moment of the decision-making process. The film cleverly switches back and forth between her current predicament and the last couple of years that have made her who she is.
Mia isn’t your typical teenager. While other kids her age would be listening to Top 40 radio, she sticks to Beethoven and other classics. A gifted cellist, she doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else.
Until she meets a boy. Obviously.
Adam (Jamie Blackley) is everything Mia isn’t. He’s popular, easy-going and a wannabe rock star. So, of course, the two are perfect for each other.
The relationship between the two is supposed to be one of the strongest elements of the film. Much of the story centers around it. While it has some beautifully romantic moments, it also proves to be one of the most negative elements for me.
Whether it’s the lack of chemistry between Moretz and Blackley, Adam and Mia never really click for me. Their relationship seems flat and boring. Mia never seems quite at ease with Adam or who he is. She goes to his gigs but seems mostly miserable. She admires him and his music, but she just doesn’t find peace in his world. Adam, on the other hand, blends in perfectly wherever he is.
As Adam’s star rises, Mia’s character feels more like a groupie than the love of his life. In fact, he pulls out his jackassery card when Mia’s own star has the chance to shine when she applies to Juilliard. He follows it up with a sweet gesture, but I still waited to hear “I’m sorry, baby. I promise I’ll never do it again” come out of his mouth.
It might be my own cynicism of the “happily ever after” trope, but their tempestuous relationship seems downright unhealthy at times.
Mia’s parents Denny (Joshua Leonard) and Kat (Mireille Enos) are just the opposite. He’s a former rocker while she is the groupie that fell in love with him. They offer Mia love and support and even try to help break her out of her shell.
Despite the disastrous car crash, we’re treated to plenty of time with both parents in the flashbacks. Honestly, the relationships built within Mia’s family unit is where the true heart of the story is for me. Her parents and their friends also offer the most entertainment value.
Granted, Moretz doesn’t exactly have a lot of fun material to work with. She doesn’t have a Whoopi Goldberg to banter with as she floats between life and death like Patrick Swayze did. Instead, we deal with her trauma as she discovers the fate of her family and watches her own battered body lie on an operating table and, later, in a hospital bed.
While watching this film, I listened to the sniffles of three young women sitting in the row behind me. While there were definitely some tender moments, my own need for a tissue didn’t come till late in the film when Mia’s grandfather (Stacy Keach) tearfully told her comatose form he understood if she needed to go.
While I had problems with the love story, “If I Stay” still manages to strike a chord. I was a bit of an emotional wreck after the film and had to restrain myself from calling all of my loved ones. Moretz gives her all as character runs the gamut of emotions, although the obvious focus is on distress and misery. What’s more, the film had me questioning the decision she would make right up till the very end.
Throughout this review, I’ve intentionally focused on the character work, because it is this film’s greatest strength.
It’s not the effects or watching Moretz stare blankly more times than I can count. It’s not the blinding light that beckons her or my inability to figure out how she gets through closed doors when she can only pass through open ones.
Of course, that didn’t bug me as much as knowing she didn’t have the same clothes on as she had in the accident. Apparently, winter jackets aren’t ghost chic.
And, it’s definitely not the romantic relationship between Mia and Adam, while I’m sure the target audience of teen girls will eat it up.
No, what works best is the characters themselves. The bond between Mia’s parents and their connection with her is beautiful.
As the last scene faded and the credits began to roll, I wiped my eyes and began processing what I’d just seen. While “If I Stay” hopefully teaches no one lessons about romance, it does teach something beautiful about love.
As seen in two recent films, “Frozen” and “Maleficent,” the greatest loves in our lives might not be with our mates. Romantic love has its shortcomings — and some of us may never find the idealized form found in Disney’s fairy tales — but love is always around us. Whether it’s the love of our family, our friends or a perfect stranger who comes into our lives for a brief moment and shares their life’s hopes, joys and problems with us, it is everywhere.
“If I Stay” longs to communicate this ideal; and, at times, it does. However, it seems confined by its beginnings, dulling the emotional blow and muting the beautiful truth that wishes to be spoken.