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Teen Romance on Life Support in Weepy "If I Stay"

Movies & DVDs

Release Date: August 22, 2014
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some sexual material)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 106 min.
Director: R.J. Cutler
Actors: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Aisha Hinds

Compared to, say, Twilight, If I Stay, based on the popular young adult novel written by Gayle Forman, is a giant leap forward for young female protagonists. While poor Bella Swan wasn’t given any other interests, abilities or life goals save for obsessing over Edward Cullen, the teenage leading lady in If I Stay actually fell in love with music, the cello in particular, long before meeting the guy of her dreams.

And it’s these moments, the ones where Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz, Hugo) is enraptured by Mozart, rather than her rock star boyfriend (Jamie Blackley, Snow White and the Huntsman) where If I Stay shines the brightest. It helps that Moretz, always a standout, is actually a teenager playing a teenager, and she brings the appropriate amount of angst and insecurity about life—and her possibly prodigious talent—to her character.

But when the focus shifts into far weightier thematic territory, actual matters of life and death, one can’t help being reminded of how much better The Fault in our Stars was earlier this summer.

While Stars also centered around a young woman facing an untimely demise, there was a thoughtfulness about the characters—and care exercised in the writing that mirrored John Green’s unique voice in the novel— that made the love story between Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) and Gus (Ansel Elgort) feel real and worth investing in. Stars was a tearjerker where the tears were actually warranted. With If I Stay, there’s only one scene, a moving monologue from Mia’s grandfather (Stacy Keach, Nebraska) as his granddaughter lies comatose in a hospital bed, that’s really worth the waterworks.

Another problem with If I Stay is the “love story” itself. From their first meeting, the supposed true love between Adam and Mia comes across more like the diary-like declarations of puppy love that Taylor Swift writes about. Of course, given their ages, that wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that we’re supposed to believe they have a “forever” kind of love. Giving further credence to teen romance basically being on life support inthe film, Moretz and Blackley have little chemistry as actors, and the dialogue they’re reciting doesn’t ring particularly true either.

Relying on a series of flashbacks before the Big Event, namely a car accident that claims the lives of Mia’s father (Joshua Leonard, Higher Ground) mother (Mireille Enos, World War Z) and adorable little brother (Jakob Davies, This Means War), Mia leads a pretty idyllic life before she winds up on a stretcher.

Living near Portland with parents who are a little bit rock ’n’ roll (her dad was a drummer in a rock band before quitting to spend more time with his family) while she’s definitely the oddball with her love of classical music, her mom and dad are so impossibly cool, they’re the parents ever kid dreams of. Trouble is, the way they talk and behave sounds and feels like the invention of a clever writer, just one of many reasons that If I Stay doesn’t work as well as it should.

See, there’s a compelling question buried in all this melodrama, but If I Stay rarely takes advantage of the opportunity. When Mia is given the opportunity to choose whether to live or die with her fate is hanging in the balance, there’s never any real question of what she’ll choose. Even the notion of an afterlife, which the script clearly seems to support, isn’t given much thought. It’s not that anyone expects deep existential debate from what’s the equivalent of a teenage Nicholas Sparks weepie, mind you, but if someone is asking an interesting question, why not make it an interesting discussion?

In what ultimately feels like “Touched by an Angel: Teen Edition” If I Stay is nowhere as intriguing as the novel its based on. While there are glimpses of inspiration that prevent it from being a total dud, the young audience the movie is intended for still deserve something so much better.           

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking (some scenes involve underage teenagers)
  • Language/Profanity: Not pervasive, but a few uses of sh--, as-, he--, bit--, da-- and several exclamations of God’s name
  • Sex/Nudity: Mia and Adam are shown kissing quite a bit. It’s implied that Mia and Adam have sex (her virginity is referenced, and what happens next is offscreen). They have a full-on love scene later on (no nudity). One of Adam’s female bandmates is “into girls.” We see her briefly kiss another girl from afar.
  • Violence: Mia’s family is involved in a very serious car crash, and while the actual impact happens offscreen, it’s still pretty alarming. Those squeamish about blood or surgery won’t be a fan of a couple of scenes involving both.
  • Worldview: Most of the movie centers around Mia’s decision whether to live or join her family in the afterlife. While an afterlife is clearly something Mia believes in, there’s no mention of God. However, Mia views it as an opportunity to reunite with her family.

*Published 8/22/2014

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