I recently decided to stream a 2014 movie based on a well-received YA novel. I’d thought about seeing it in the theater on its first run but the word of mouth on it wasn’t great. So it took me a while to give If I Stay a chance. It starred Chloe Grace Moretz whom I enjoyed in Kick-Ass, Hugo, and Let Me In. On the negative side there was the remake of Carrie, though that misfire all wasn’t her fault.
The movie was the first fiction feature for R.J.Cutler, who is more known as a TV producer (Nashville, Flip That House) and a documentary maker (1993’s The War Room, The World According to Dick Cheney). The novel by Gayle Foreman was adapted by Shauna Cross, who’d done the screenplays for Whip It and What to Expect While You’re Expecting. Foreman did write a sequel for “If I Stay” called “Where She Went” which kind of answers the original novel’s title right off the bat.
The caught-between-life-and-after-life genre has some good movies in it, but it also has some stinkers. The production is dealing with a universal moment for all humans; simply put, none of us gets out of here alive. You can’t get away from the profundity of the situation, even though it can be handled with humor. What you don’t want is a casual feel since, to use the cliché, this is a matter of life and death. You want to get down and dirty and struggle with the theme. The biggest problem with If I Stay is it keeps its hands clean.
The movie adaptation is straightforward, following the structure of the book. Mia (Moretz) is a 17-year-old High School senior who’s a talented cellist. She’s auditioned for Juilliard and is waiting to hear from them, and she’s also dealing with the end of a relationship with rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). On a drive with her mother Kat (Mireille Enos), dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) and young brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), an oncoming car comes into their lane and hits them head-on.
Mia awakens on the snow-covered road with emergency service vehicles all around her. She sees what’s left of the family car, which isn’t much, and then she sees EMTs working on her body. She’s transported to the hospital where she watches the surgeons work on her body, but she slips into a coma and no one is sure if she’ll awaken. The movie flips back and forth from the hospital to events to show her family life, her development as a cellist, and her relationship with Adam. At the hospital, friends and family gather, including her grandfather (Stacy Keach), her best friend Kim (Liana Liberato), and Adam.
The best parts of the movie are the depiction of the relationship between Mia and her parents and family. Enos is luminous as Kat, and was likely happy to do a much more passionate role after the two seasons of the AMC series The Killing. Keach is restrained and effective as he switches between stoicism when around others and emotional vulnerability when alone with his comatose granddaughter.
While it has a promising beginning, the love story of Adam and Mia fails to be compelling because of clunky writing that slips into clichés so badly you’re pretty sure you’ve already seen their scenes before. Adam is on the cusp of success in his rock band while Mia’s hero is Beethoven. The story plays up the difference in styles rather than understanding how they blend. The writers apparently nere listened to the Beatles (“Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” in particular), almost any Harry Chapin song, or Damien Rice’s “Volcano” among a host of others. For a movie that centers on music, its poor understanding of the art form is like a flapping flat tire as the story’s progresses.
If I Stay suffers in comparison to other YA book adaptations, especially The Fault in Our Stars, which came out a few months before If I Stay. With Fault the audience was drawn in completely to the relationship of Hazel and Gus, and the story went in surprising directions. With Mia and Adam, you don’t really care about them, so you also don’t care if Mia stays or passes on. For a fantasy like this, that’s a fatal flaw.