If I Stay
All signs would point to If I Stay being yet another teeny-weepy, in the same glurgey, smarmy vein as The Fault In Our Stars, but somehow it manages to rise above that. Yes, there are teenagers, and yes, they’re in love, and yes, they deal with tragedy. And yet there’s something fundamentally honest about it in a way that most similar movies lack.
The story is told, basically, in flashback. Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a talented young cellist in Portland. She meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), who fronts a local rock band that’s starting to go places. Her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) were young rockers once, too, and they’re cautiously encouraging about their daughter’s first tentative steps into young love.
The catch is how the flashback comes in: Mia, her parents, and her brother are in a bad car accident. Her mother is dead on the scene, and her father dies on the operating table. Mia herself is comatose, at least in her body. Her “spirit” is awake, roaming the halls of the hospital, watching how everybody reacts, and remembering her life over the last year or so.
There’s obviously a certain supernatural aspect to the story, and yet Shauna Cross’ screenplay — based on Gayle Forman’s novel — wisely avoids using this as anything but a plot device. There’s no explicitly religious overtones, no population of other disembodied people, and no suggestion that Mia can affect anything other than her own recovery. It’s just a way to isolate her on her long, dark night of the soul. And, in a way, it’s a more effective way than the gimmick in Locke.
Mia has a lot to think about, even beyond what her life will be like as an orphan. Her relationship with Adam was on the way out. She had an application in for Juilliard, and even if she didn’t go to New York Adam’s band would be touring much of the time. Even decades past that point in my own life I remember how that first love feels newer and stronger than anything, and its inevitable end does feel, at the time, like the death Mia faces.
In the flashbacks, Mia and Adam both say and do some dumb, clichéd things, but in this film they feel descriptive of the dumb, clichéd things real teenagers do in their first relationships. This is probably the single biggest improvement If I Stay has over its genre, where normally these big, romantic gestures are glorified and endorsed.
Unfortunately, the story still paints itself into a corner where it can’t reach the real best-case scenario. It portrays Mia’s choice as letting go, avoiding the pain she’ll face if she wakes up, or coming back to a happy ending with Adam. While it’s admirable that the film uses its setup to engage with the issue of suicide absent the usual moral questions of responsibility, we know with our perspective that what Mia really needs is to learn how to recover from the loss, but still go on living without Adam. The end of the relationship is not the end of the world. Younger audiences will probably enjoy the story better without that nagging voice of experience, though.
Despite this flaw, I think Moretz really imbues the film with its heft. She manages to deliver just the right combination of naïvety and confidence that makes Mia work, not entirely unlike the way she played Carrie. And she can really sell tragedy, possibly from her history of working with heavier material than most actresses her age.
Wherever it comes from, If I Stay comes across as fundamentally more honest about the way down than most films that deal with teenage love. It may not be perfect, but something about it just works.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.