If I Stay is yet another movie based on a Young Adult novel I haven’t read. I’ve heard it’s a more faithful adaptation than most. What it is, is story about a teen cello prodigy who is faced with the biggest decision anyone could ever have to make – whether to live or die.
If I Stay opens with a typical family-type scene and a rather matter-of-fact voiceover by Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz), the teen in question. The family is a loving one and we get to know them a bit before we get to the moment where they take advantage of a snow day to go out as family. There’s an accident and the next thing we know, Mia’s spirit leaves her unconscious body and sees the wreckage.
An ambulance arrives and she is whisked away. Her comatose physical self needs to go to a hospital, but her spirit is torn between following along and waiting to see what happened to the rest of her family. It’s here that we realize why Mia is narrating the story and that what we’ve seen prior to the accident, is her remembering the events leading up to the crash.
From this moment, If I Stay alternates between filling in the background of her life and her trying to decide whether to remain alive or just let go and die.
In that moment, the whole of adolescent experience is reduced to its essence – instead of everything feeling like a matter of life and death, it actually is about life and death.
Through Mia’s memories we learn that her parents, Denny (Joshua Leonard) and Kat (Mireille Enos), were a couple of punk rockers until having a family made them choose between life on the road and life in a slightly more traditional family situation. Though they gave up the road, they have always remained more than a little unorthodox. Possibly because of her parents’ cool, her little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies) doesn’t seem like the pest you might expect – a rather nice variation.
We learn that Mia has had a passion for the cello since she was little girl – and that Denny surprised her with her very own cello before she even started school (further adding to Denny’s cool, we learn how he could afford it later in the movie).
In high school, she becomes the object of rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley), who sees her practicing alone in the music room at school and is immediately intrigued. Their blooming relationship has the feel of the real thing because every moment is life or death important (I remember that feeling like it was yesterday; sadly, it was not).
You can’t have a good drama, romantic or otherwise, without conflict and, sure enough, even though Mia learns to appreciate and even enjoy Adam’s music, their relationship threatened when her application to Julliard is accepted and his band (Willamette Stone) is signed.
The second half of the film is mostly about Mia’s decision. She contemplates staying even as more tragedy strikes; then she thinks about letting go even as Adam comes rushing to the hospital.
You might tend to think that critics get to be very cynical after the first thousand odd movies. It might even happen to some/many/a few, but a cynic would look at If I Stay and think about how it was constructed specifically to generate specific emotional responses. Of course, every movie is made to elicit specific emotional responses – the important thing is whether you can see the strings, as it were; whether the manipulation is too obvious to be ignored.
If I Stay has the right feel to it. Moretz finds Mia beautifully – possibly because she has a passion for her craft that echoes Mia’s – and she has been at it as long. Plus, she’s at the same age, so her life echoes Mia’s as much as her passion for her art. Like a piece from Mia’s repertoire, Shauna Cross’ script lays out the beats, the emotions. Moretz plays them like her character plays the cello.
As good as everyone else is, if we don’t buy Mia, If I Stay is a wash. Moretz makes her real. Because of her performance, we can believe everything else – though Stacy Keach’s brief moments as her grandfather eclipse every other performance aside from hers.
Director R.J. Cutler is mainly known for documentaries so that might be why If I Stay feels more real than a lot of adaptions of novels. His grounding is in reality and that grounding, coupled with Moretz’s performance, takes If I Stay to a higher level than I was expecting.
Unfortunately, the film’s excellence is marred by a final scene that elicited laughter (including mine) at the screening I attended. It was enough to take me out of the movie with only seconds to go before the credits rolled; enough to cost If I Stay a higher grade.
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Photos by Doane Gregory/Courtesy of Warner Bros.