“I have to stress that you have no idea how close strong performances come to almost saving this whole thing.”
by Ken B.
I’m not opposed to tearjerkers or melodrama on principle. I really liked Terms of Endearment. But perhaps a more apt piece of evidence in this case would be if I mentioned I liked The Fault in Our Stars, another movie about teenagers dying that came out in 2014. That movie and If I Stay might seem largely similar in terms of their wide-threaded concepts, but when it comes to looking at individual plot details and execution, there are significant differences, very few of which, I’m afraid to report, rule in If I Stay’s favor. Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, this is a film that lives or dies (ahem) on some crucial things – among them, the development of the characters, the strength of the actors’ performances, and the ability to evaluate its subject matter in a fascinating and at least somewhat insightful way.
Well, two out of three ain’t bad.
If I Stay tells the story of Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), seventeen or eighteen years old, and the daughter of former rock musician turned English teacher Denny (Joshua Leonard), and former groupie turned part-time travel agent Kat (Mireille Enos). Mia lives near Portland with her parents and younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies). She’s a masterful cello player, and has auditioned to attend Juilliard. When school is cancelled one day due to snow, the family decides to take a drive up the mountain (!) to visit Denny’s parents (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose) on their farm. But the road conditions are less than ideal when driving up the mountain right after it snowed, and they get into a wreck.
When Mia comes to, she finds that she has left her body, which remains lying, injured in the snow, as she and the rest of her family are treated to by paramedics. Nobody can see or hear her, um, spirit or conscious or whatever you want to call it, and she wanders the halls of the hospital, unable to get updates on her status or the conditions of her parents and brother. When a nurse (Aisha Hinds) whispers in the ear of Mia’s injured, unconscious body that the decision to live or die is entirely in her own hands, Mia finds herself replaying the last few years of her life, especially the history of her relationship with her first real boyfriend, up-and-coming rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley). With her physical body trapped in coma, Mia must look at everything she knows and make the choice either to keep fighting or let go.
Reading over this plot summary, I’ve realized just now to the full degree of which If I Stay could have been really great. This is a textbook example of what they call a “high concept plot” – what if you had an out-of-body experience and had to choose whether to live or die? It’s a shame that R.J. Cutler’s film doesn’t fully realize the potential set within. In fact, the scenes directly dealing with Mia’s surreal situation are among the film’s weakest points, with some exceptions (more on that later). The meat and bones of the 107 minute film are about Mia and Adam’s relationship. While this allows for a fuller development of the characters, it leaves the possibility of grander examinations of life and death much more fleeting and insignificant – an ideal that the movie proves on more than one occasion that it’s interested in exploring, but never really does.
I have to stress that you have no idea how close strong performances come to almost saving this whole thing. Chloë Grace Moretz is excellent, although I can’t imagine that comes as a huge shock to anyone who has seen the actress onscreen before, even in mediocre fare. She and Blackley have great romantic chemistry – there is a sense of realism and believability in the flashbacks detailing relationship between Adam and Mia, and some genuinely lovely moments with the two, which makes their scenes (and there are many) quite watchable, if perhaps too heavy a focus of the film. But another one of If I Stay’s strongest assets is veteran character actor Stacy Keach as Mia’s grandfather. There is a key scene towards the end of the film where Keach’s character delivers an incredible monologue to Mia’s comatose body in the hospital bed, with kind-of-ghost-Mia looking on. Keach’s subtle yet incredibly powerful delivery gives the sequence so much heft that, for my money, it nearly rivals the emotional impact of Patricia Arquette’s “I just thought there would be more” scene from Boyhood. The problem is you have to sit thorough roughly seventy-five minutes of mostly forgettable content to get to it.
I have a notion that If I Stay would have worked more as a romantic drama about its two main characters and their relationship, and that plotline only (and the film seems to want to do that more and more as it goes on). However, by placing it around its significantly bigger framing device, and only occasionally and shallowly touching upon the grander philosophy that comes with such a setup, there’s a sense of the same eventual dissatisfaction that would come from going to a big party but only wandering around the porch or making small talk in the hallway. This is a movie that is handsomely filmed and compellingly acted, but there are too many moments of cheap manipulation and an unshakable feeling that the film knows where it could have gone and what it could have addressed, but doesn’t, that make If I Stay a tough movie to fully recommend.