With Chloë Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach. Written by Shauna Cross. Directed by R.J. Cutler. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material. 106 minutes.
This year’s summer movie season is bracketed by two tearjerkers about teenagers in love facing death. It opened with “The Fault in Our Stars,” in which the protagonists were dealing with cancer, and heads into the final weeks with IF I STAY, where the heroine is in a coma. A third film will mark this as an official trend.
Based on the novel by Gayle Forman, it tells the story of Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz). She’s a high school cellist who attracts the attention of the coolest boy in the school, Adam (Jamie Blackley). He’s cool because he’s the lead in a rock band that is starting to go places. In spite of their musical differences, they respect each other’s passion for their music, and fall in love.
We already know this is an unconventional story because Mia’s family is very offbeat, including her father (Joshua Leonard), himself a former rocker, and mother (Mireille Enos), an unreconstructed hippie. It’s a family where everyone loves and supports each other. Naturally they are doomed.
A car accident has dire consequences for Mia, her parents and her younger brother, and her spirit/soul sees everything from the outside. While doctors fight to save her a nurse whispers in her ear that it’s up to her to fight for her life. The bulk of the film is Mia’s story told in flashbacks intercut with the hospital drama as we wait to see Mia’s fate. It’s all very melodramatic, including a scene with her grandfather (Stacy Keach) talking to his comatose granddaughter, but it’s slickly done. Indeed, it is to the filmmakers’ credit that you can’t be 100% certain how it’s going to turn out. As the story progresses, there are indications that we may get the happy ending we’re yearning for or that it will end on the tragic note that tearjerkers like this often do. Indeed, it’s not until the film’s final moments that we get the answer.
The film is helped by a strong cast but it rises or falls on Moretz’s performance. Not yet eighteen, she’s already marked as a child actress likely to make a successful transition to adult roles. Whether playing in an action comedy like “Kick Ass,” a stylized horror film like “Let Me In,” a fantasy like “Hugo” or a teen romance as she does here, she immerses herself in her characters. What might have been simply a cheap bid for tears turns into a complex portrait of a girl navigating an extremely difficult path to adulthood.
Leonard and Enos are fun as her bit-too-liberated parents, as is Liana Liberato as her best friend. Blackley gets to be hunky sensitive guy for much of the film, but when the story requires him to be a bit more complicated he rises to the occasion. Students of American cultural changes might also want to take note of the off-handed way the film disposes of a potential romantic rival in Adam’s band.
“If I Stay” is first and foremost a teen romance, and cynical adults may have forgotten that adolescence is a time of intense and raw emotions. The film captures that spirit without condescension or knowing winks, nor with gratuitous elements–drug humor, sex jokes–that all too often crops up in such material. It plays its story straight, and for those willing and able to go along with the plot contrivance, it the sort of teary romance that will make either a great date movie or a girl’s night out.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.