If I Stay (2014) / Drama-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material
Running Time: 106 min.
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach, Jakob Davies, Gabrielle Rose, Lauren Lee Smith
Director: R.J. Cutler
Screenplay: Shauna Cross (based on the novel by Gayle Forman)
Review published August 23, 2014
2014 already brought us the modestly effective teen tearjerker adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars, which performed quite well at the box office. In production at the same time had been a similar genre piece, If I Stay, but this one is too encumbered by its own artifice to hit us with the sort of poignant, heartfelt moments that director R.J. Cutler (The World According to Dick Cheney, The Ordained), from a script by Shauna Cross (What to Expect When You're Expecting, Whip It), is so desperate to deliver wholesale. The tears will come for some, but even those who find themselves actually compelled by the story will be surprised to find themselves laughing after the film's final scene. The problem: you're not supposed to.
Something many teens might enjoy about the film is the idealized portrayal of the "way cool" (for adults, they will be "way too cool to believe") parents, Kat (Enos, Sabotage) and Denny (Leonard, The Shaggy Dog), who grew up in the punk rock scene, only to settle down and live a straight-laced life, though still instilling a sense of individuality and fun in their own children. And a love of music, which has spurned their eldest, Mia (Moretz, Carrie), to pursue her passion for classical music by taking up the cello. Her passion catches the eye of another musician, high school heartthrob and garage rock band singer/guitarist Adam (Blackley, The Fifth Estate), who decides to pursue her romantically, even though the far more reserved Mia wants to take it slow. Calamity soon ends their momentum when Mia's family is involved in an icy road car accident that leaves her in a coma.
There are at least two major gimmicks to this adaptation of the 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, one of which is necessary and the other which is downright baffling. The necessary gimmick is that most of the film involves us following around Mia having an ethereal, out-of-body experience around the hospital while she lies unmoving in her coma on the hospital bed. The premise is that Mia can survive her injuries if she has enough fight in her, and as she overhears many conversations involving her family, friends, the medical staff, and Adam, her desire to live or die fluctuates. It's not plausible, but it gives the film a plaintive touch for her to witness first hand what her life means to those around her.
The second gimmick, and the one that is confusing from a narrative perspective, is the fact that we're shown the accident that has Mia fighting for her life and her subsequent predicament before we're shown most of the details of her life in the months prior to the accident occurring. For a while, many audience members will surmise that perhaps we're seeing what life might have been like for Mia had the accident not happened, which makes no sense from a narrative conflict perspective given that we're supposed to be invested in whether Mia wants to live in a post-accident world and pulls through, rather than feel anguish at what could have been.
It takes about 2/3 of the movie before it's finally made clear that we're actually seeing a jumble of flashbacks filling us in on the important details of Mia's life, from her courtship and up-and-down relationship with Adam, and her dreams potentially coming true when she lands an audition for esteemed music school, Juilliard. It's not until about 95% of the film is done that you realize that all of the hospital scenes, which feel like they take place over the course of several weeks, is actually just the first twenty-four hour period of her coma. The resulting temporal choppiness from not being clear from the start not only continuously takes us out of the story to try to catch up with it when we're finally given enough information for it to make sense, but it also reveals just how manipulative the device is in order to try to load up all of the emotional beats for whatever version of a climax the story can muster up.
Seeing the strings of manipulation is a definite issue, but the look of the film is also distancing. For one, this movie goes far too overboard in its make-up and hair styles. Every character looks like they've just come out of an all-day make-over, with perfectly coifed hair, eye shadow, lip gloss, blush and jewelry. The wardrobe is just as elaborate. It's hard to buy these characters as real people when they look like they've jumped out of a fashion catalog. Just as off-putting is the use of obvious CGI in order to digitally crop Moretz's head on to whomever the body double in that's actually playing the cello in the long shots. The only thing that would have made this look more obvious and cheesy would have been to have this talented cellist wear a Chloe Grace Moretz mask.
And this film is certainly choppy, enough to confuse the heck out of us when we're shown characters w're barely intriduced to lamenting Mia's potential demise. One such character is a blonde woman named Willow (Smith, Trick 'r Treat), who must be significant since other characters call out her importance in one of the film's more tension-filled scenes. We're never really given a proper introduction to her character and we watch the film wondering what her relationship is to Mia, and why her being there is critical. The book's fans will be able to fill in the narrative blanks, but as I often say, if you have to read a book to understand a movie, it's not a good movie. (I had to look up a synopsis of the novel to find that she is a friend the family were going to visit, and a nurse). It makes you wonder how much of this film's intended exposition has ended up on the cutting room floor in order to fluff up the romance, and showcase such things as Adam's superfluous-but-catchy rock-band numbers?
Speaking of Adam, this teen romance feels far too dreamt up to satisfy. Adam feels more like a projection of the kind of boyfriend teenage girls fantasize about having, with his shag-dog looks, edgy charisma, subtle intelligence, wisdom beyond his years, and poetic singing/song-writing appeal. While most adults in the audience will wonder why Mia would ever seriously consider a relationship with a guy who is so self-centered to get mad at her for desiring to relocate 3,000 miles away to go to the most prestigious music school in the country, the film seems to make the false presumption that younger girls will find it more romantic for the boyfriend to be upset that they will be apart and have to Skype to keep in touch (something he seems to think is the worst possible case scenario, even though he already spends several weeks a year on the road performing gigs). Does Adam really think that two successful musicians of different genres living in the same house wouldn't spend nearly all of their time apart at gigs around the country? For a character who is supposed to be so smart and insightful, he sure comes across as naive and dimwitted too much of the time to fully buy into.
As I have basically railed against this film throughout, I do want to point out one saving grace for the film: Stacy Keach's (Planes: Fire & Rescue, Nebraska) performance as Mia's sullen grandfather. He doesn't have many scenes, but when he does, he truly shines, especially in the one scene in which he is alone with the comatose Mia discussing his own regrets as a father, and his own views on Mia's fight. In a film so manipulative and wrongheaded on so many different narrative levels, for this gem of a scene to emerge and produce real tears from a character barely written in to the story is a welcome surprise. If only the rest of the film had the poignancy, clarity and inner fire of this moment, we'd have a special movie to cherish, instead of one we merely scratch our heads about, thinking, like Mia, of what could have been.
©2014 Vince Leo