Manipulative, contrived, melodramatic – all labels we slap on that most perfectly titled movie genre “the weeper.” All fit “If I Stay” like original packaging. Teenage girls and the boys who want to date them need to discover the pleasures of a well-executed teen weeper for themselves, and this film fills the bill.
Chloe Grace Moretz takes on her first real star-vehicle romance in this adaptation of Gayle Forman’s novel. Moretz is Mia, a Portland high school cello prodigy who, 12 minutes into the movie, is in a car crash. Her spirit awakens in the crimson snow to see her broken body hauled off in an ambulance.
As the able doctors operate on her, somebody says, “If she wants to live, she’d better start fighting.” That’s what the movie is about, Mia’s spirit, dashing barefoot through the halls of the hospital, checking on the rest of her injured family and reliving, through flashbacks, the life she might be leaving behind.
We travel back to her meeting Adam (Jamie Blackley), the hunky upperclassman alt rocker who is drawn to her good looks and her utter immersion in her instrument. Worlds collide as the Beethoven-loving cellist struggles to fit in with Portland’s two-guitar bar-band scene.
In other episodes, we fall in with her still-hip parents. Dad (Joshua Leonard) used to be a punk drummer, and mom (Mireille Enos) was a groupie/riot grrrl. Then they had their second child (Jakob Davies) and gave that up for straight jobs.
“Sometimes you make choices in life,” is Mom’s wise counsel, “and sometimes choices make you.”
Adam is Mia’s first kiss, gives her that first shot of whiskey and is her “first” in that other all-important way. But she could get into Juilliard and that first love could be the one who got away.
Or she could never come out of this coma she’s in, the one we see her in every time we return to the hospital, where Adam is almost the only one NOT allowed to see Mia.
Director R.J. Cutler, a veteran TV producer/director (“Nashville”), keeps the camera in tight on Moretz, and the romance of this sinks or swims on her performance. Her cello playing is impressive (occasionally sped up to reach the proper tempo), her girl-in-love moments awkward, in a kind of studious way. Sometimes her body language doesn’t match the tone of her voice or the pitch of the scene. Even an actress as skilled as Moretz (“Let Me In,” “Carrie”) seems lost in the boyfriend/girlfriend walking and hugging moments. Where DOES one put one’s other arm?
But even that can be explained away as “natural” for a kid only used to hugging a cello.
And whatever disconnects the movie throws at us, the over-familiar cliches of screen romance – pop music courtship montages – it eventually gets down to business: Mia’s choice. Does she stay or does she let go?
Take away the teen drinking, profanity and (off camera) sex, and “If I Stay” is almost a faith-based film. Apparently, the only people who die more or less go by choice in author Forman’s fiction.
However, wonderful supporting players give the movie its third-act heart. Stacy Keach, playing the grandfather, has a couple of great scenes with Mia. Aisha Hinds is a compassionate nurse who whispers in the comatose teen’s ear.
And Enos, of TV’s “The Killing,” is that wise, sweet and hip mom who seems to exist only in the movies. Enos makes the most of several mother-daughter moments and plays the “Date the musician because we GET him” parental meddling scenes to the hilt.
In the end, what matters with any weeper is, “Does it earn tears?” Manipulated we may be, yanked through contrived melodrama that piles grief upon grief. But “If I Stay” will make you wish you’d brought a hanky. You know, for your date. Not that you’d ever fall for this.