If I Stay is a movie that’s targeted to easily manipulated tweens who are too young to know what love is and too stubborn to realize they don’t know. Not for a second does this film feel anything but pandering and contrived, which means not for a second can it be taken seriously.
Based on the young adult novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, the story is a somber conceit: A happy family is in a horrific car accident, and the daughter Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz), a 17-year-old cello prodigy, has an out-of-body experience while she’s in a coma. Which is to say, Mia in ghost form walks around the hospital and other locales as she reflects on important moments and people in her life, all the while trying to make a decision whether to live or die.
Most of director R.J. Cutler’s (The September Issue) new film comprises these flashbacks, and most of the flashbacks involve Mia’s boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley). Adam is too perfect for mere words — a handsome aspiring musician who takes an instant liking to Mia and makes all the moves to bring them together. This is how many young girls fantasize about relationships beginning: They go about their normal business while the guy of their dreams does all the work to sweep them off their feet. Newsflash: This only happens in movies.
Storywise, however, this is OK because the flashbacks are from Mia’s point of view, so we’re seeing the events the way she idyllically remembers them. We watch as Mia reluctantly applies to Juilliard, knowing acceptance will take her from her home in Portland to New York City and far away from Adam. We also meet her kind, hippie parents Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), little brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), Gramps (Stacy Keach) and Gran (Gabrielle Rose), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and more of the friends and family who love and support Mia. As tragedy befalls her family, Mia’s spirit wonders if she has anything to wake up and live for.
Cutler’s simple, matter-of-fact approach does little to enhance the story. This is a movie that begs for visual pop during its upbeat moments, but these scenes are shot in the same bland style used for the dreary, antiseptic hospital. The happy moments need to be happier so we can truly empathize with Mia’s life and want her to live. When everything is this dull, it’s hard to give a damn either way.
I have no idea how accurate the story is to Forman’s book, but I kept thinking how much more interesting it would’ve been to flash forward — i.e., to see Mia’s future with Adam and future at Juilliard and then have her decide which would make her happier. That way, the story would go from being about boyfriend drama to two different versions of happiness — personal and professional — and seeing which Mia truly desires more.
But that’s not the movie Cutler made. Instead, If I Stay is a labored melodrama that does have some decent emotional sequences and a better ending than it deserves, but it ultimately doesn’t hold together.