If I Stay is another entry into the young adult weepie genre, carefully calculated to wring tears from teenage girls while emptying their wallets at the same time. That it’s solidly directed and generally well acted raises it above its meagre ambitions and makes for an effective tear-jerker.
Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Mia, a talented teenage cellist whose life is abruptly thrown into the balance when a car crash leaves her in a coma and the rest of her family in a similar position. The film is a mix of flashbacks from the year leading up to the accident and a present day, out-of-body Mia watching the events surrounding her and deciding whether her survival is worth fighting for.
Inevitably, there’s a boy in Mia’s life – promising rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley) – and their dreamy romance provides the bulk of the flashback narrative. Though it is soppy and often overwrought in a Nicholas Sparks kind of way, Moretz and Blackley are both appealing enough to sell the love story, despite a few awkward attempts to force differences between them just to keep them apart. Yes, she is a quiet, classical music nerd and he’s an upcoming rock star but they are still a perfect couple and we can all see that, so trying to break them up on those grounds doesn’t ring true.
Refreshingly, Mia’s future is just as big a part of her life as her relationship with Adam. She is awaiting acceptance to Juilliard and seems willing to part with Adam to follow that dream. In a post-Twilight world, it’s a welcome change to see young adult heroines whose motivations aren’t entirely determined by who they have a crush on and more what they want and need to do for themselves. Mia’s promising future is also crucial to making us invest in her decision to live or die, even as her implausibly perfect family life will be irreparably damaged by the accident.
As Mia’s parents, Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos are wonderful. Two former rockers who made the decision to settle down into a stable life for their daughter, they are loving and understanding almost to a fault. But the scenes of large family gatherings, including the couples friends and Mia’s grandparents (Stacy Keach and Garbielle Rose), are so idyllic that the fall out of the accident carries extra sadness. In the hospital scenes, Keach’s monologue to a comatose Mia is the film’s most heart-wrenching moment and the one most likely to resonate once the film is over.
Making his feature film debut after a slew of documentaries and TV work, director R.J. Cutler does a solid job of meshing the present day with the flashbacks and wringing as much emotion from the story as possible. However, there is a distinct lack of subtlety, partly due to Gayle Forman’s source novel but also in Cutler’s direction, that leaves the film with the overriding sense that it’s always manipulating the audience, always making it clear exactly how you’re supposed to feel in any given moment.
Nonetheless, If I Stay is largely successful at doing what it sets out to do and even if its cunning attempts to drag the tears out of you at all costs are grating, there’s still an appealing romance at its core and two talented young actors to invest in.