Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
If I Stay is based on the best-selling novel by Gayle Forman, centering on a teenager that has an out-of-body experience after her family gets in a car accident and she enters a coma. The story feels ripe for cinematic storytelling and strong visualizations, but it ends up demonstrating that too many young adult romances nowadays have to look, feel, and sound exactly the same to appease fans. The story must focus on a romance defined by an inconvenient but far too powerful love and continuously demonstrate that the characters are deeply infatuated with each other but also concerned about what the future has in store. The performances are strong when the narrative lets them get into the quieter, more intimate moments of the story; Chloe Grace Moretz is always a pleasant force on screen, and when her character’s love of music shines through, the story feels like something more grand. More often than not, however, it wallows in the amped-up melodrama that defines a young-adult romance in the modern age.
The film focuses on Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a talented cello player in high school that’s surrounded by a loving family heaped in music. Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was in a punk band in the ’90s and played around the Portland area to local success. Her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was a bonafide groupie that exposed her daughter to music early. A scene where Kat, with a pierced nose and dyed hair, holds Mia as a toddler at a concert with huge, construction-like headphones demonstrates the way music has influenced the family. Mia aims to get a full-ride scholarship backed by her talents, but those dreams are a bit complicated by Adam (Jamie Blackley), a talented guitarist/vocalist in an up-and-coming band. They quickly fall in love and soon realize that their future plans may not cross. This complicates things, and their relationship is on the rocks when Mia’s life is changed forever by that horrific accident.
Most of the love story is told through flashbacks as Mia wanders around the hospital where she’s comatose. As their story becomes defined, however, the scenes mix together like a dreamy haze and feel interchangeable. Most are meet-cute expressions of young love that grow tired. There’s also inexplicably another example of a teenager losing her virginity in a place that the story deems symbolic but ends up feeling woefully unromantic and off-putting. But I am not the core audience of the film, particularly their niche demographic of cello-playing high schoolers that fall madly in love with young rockers. The story also creates an uncomfortably needy male interest in Blackley’s Adam, making him a self-centered character that gets angry at Mia not for hiding that she applied to a school out of state, but that it ruins their plans of being together. His parents neglected him as a child so he doesn’t want to lose her, but it feels like far more of a guilt trip on his part rather than an emotionally backed decision.
The performances from Moretz and Enos elevate the film to a middle-of-the-road affair. Enos has acting talent, as evidenced by her excellent work on The Killing, and she brings life to some trite dialogue in important scenes. She calls true love a bitch and says that life is full of difficult decisions; the scene should be unwatchably cliché, but it remains tolerable because of her empathy. Moretz mostly acts concerned in the hospital scenes, but Mia’s love for music substantially drives her performance. Stacy Keach is also wonderful in the small role he’s allotted. But there’s a scene that defines the blandness of the film: as the characters walk out of their first date, a long tracking shot begins that follows them down a path after an establishing shot shows the scope of the scene. As the long take starts to make the scene feel naturalistic and poignant, the camera jumps to the pre-existing establishing shot and then to another angle that doesn’t add to the scene itself. If I Stay takes the easy road for much of its journey, becoming emotionally indistinguishable from the glut of young-adult romances in the marketplace.
Grade: ★★½ (out of 5)