The 400-Word-Review: If I Stay
By Sean Collier
August 25, 2014
As more films are adapted from young adult novels, the invocation of that term becomes decreasingly useful. After all, it can be brand a completely earthbound romance like The Fault in Our Stars as well as dystopian sci-fi like the Hunger Games films, which do not belong in the same genre. It’s a reductive term that we can probably do without.
Except, of course, when a movie is exactly what you think of as young adult fiction, and nothing more.
If I Stay, adapted from the popular book by Gayle Forman and directed by accomplished documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler, begins with tragedy: teenage musical prodigy Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is injured in a car accident that claims the lives of her parents. Comatose, she finds her non-denominational soul staggering about the hospital as doctors work and loved ones gather. In a series of flashbacks, Mia looks back over her life while actively deciding whether to succumb to oblivion or return to the land of the living.
It’s a suicide metaphor and it isn’t, but that hardly matters — the incredibly dramatic framework is no more than that, an impetus to trace the path of a far more pedestrian teen romance. Robbed of the automotive deus ex machina, If I Stay is a sub-“Dawson’s Creek” level adolescent drama with very little conflict or suspense.
On the surface, Mia’s struggle with eternity should lend gravity to the ho-hum flashbacks. But the tension in those scenes is so completely divorced from the story, both narratively and thematically, that the full sweep of the life-and-death plot feels lazy and forced. If you have to kill half a family to make me care about your protagonist’s love life, it’s time to throw in the towel.
Moretz, a graceful and gifted young performer of considerable range, keeps If I Stay from being an unpleasant experience; still just 17, she exerts a gravitational pull on the audience that will become formidable as she continues to improve. As Adam, Mia’s rocker love interest, Jamie Blackley is convincing and likable. Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard are a little too cool to be believable as Mia’s parents.
Cutler works hard to create a film full of beauty and heartache, and would’ve succeeded if the script hadn’t been working so hard against him. If I Stay will draw out plenty of tears, but that’s not exactly an impressive trick.
My Rating: 4/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark