She’s only 17, but already Chloë Grace Moretz has cemented
her ability to play a wide variety of characters who are both girlish and wise
beyond their years, from the “Kick-Ass” movies to “Let Me In,” and even last
year’s “Carrie” remake. In “If I Stay,”
based on the weepy young adult novel about a teenage girl trapped in an
ethereal realm who must choose between life and death, her grounded,
naturalistic presence goes a long way toward making mushy material palatable.
Moretz’s performance—and the easy chemistry she shares in
flashbacks with co-star Jamie Blackley as her boyfriend—help fortify a story
that, for all its popularity, is rather maudlin and painfully awkward at times.
Granted, a lot of this stuff works better on the page. Fans
of Gayle Forman’s best-selling novel will be happy to see that director R.J.
Cutler and screenwriter Shauna Cross have stayed true to its back-and-forth
structure, and the small tweaks in details here and there are improvements.
Cutler—making his narrative feature debut following documentaries including
the “The September Issue,” about Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour—keeps
things moving in brisk, efficient fashion.
You get the sense in watching this that Cutler wanted to
keep the melodrama to a minimum, and indeed, “If I Stay” does feature some
moments of powerful understatement. Still, there was major sobbing and
snuffling in the audience at the screening I attended. As in this year’s other
dying-girl drama based on a popular YA novel, “The Fault in Our Stars,” the
expectation and release are crucial to the catharsis. It’s reliable and
irresistible, and there is an audience for that sort of experience.
And yet, the vision of Moretz’s character, Mia, hovering
over her own comatose body after a devastating car accident and running
frantically through hospital corridors searching for answers just feels jarring
and forced compared to the comfortable energy that exists elsewhere. Imagining
a ghostly purgatory in your mind as you’re reading is one thing; seeing it
depicted literally on screen is something else entirely, and it’s clunky.
“If I Stay” begins in happier times. Mia, a cello prodigy
with dreams of attending Juilliard, is enjoying a snowy morning with her mother
and father (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard), former rock ‘n’ rollers who’ve
toned it down but maintained an irreverent sense of cool, and her younger
brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies). Mia will go on to say later in the movie that
she feels like a space alien in this family, with her quiet demeanor and love
of classical music. But her honest exchanges with her parents—particularly
the appealingly down-to-Earth Enos as her mother—are among the film’s
On their way to visit longtime friends and their new baby,
the family’s car slams into an out-of-control vehicle on an icy Portland road. As emergency workers dash about treating the victims, Mia finds herself
wandering among them in a hazy, out-of-body experience. She quickly hops into
her own ambulance to the hospital and continues to follow herself from surgery
to the intensive care unit. As her earthly self clings to life, her mind
wanders to the past, bringing us up to speed on who she is and how she got
We see Mia and Blackley’s Adam fall in love over their
shared love of music, although as the lead singer and guitarist of a rock band
on the rise, his is a very different kind. The way in which they try to meet
each other halfway and understand one another’s tastes is sweet and playful.
You can see the dreamy allure he holds, with his puppy-dog eyes and a front man’s
We see Mia passionately practicing her cello—Bach’s
“Cello Suite No. 1 in G,” naturally, as much of a standard as The Ramones’ “I
Wanna Be Sedated,” which inspired Adam to pursue music at a tender age. We see
her give the performance of her young life at her audition for Juilliard. And
we see her enjoying girl talk over coffee with her best friend, Kim (Liana
Liberato, nicely underplaying the wisecracking sidekick role).
Her life seems so rich and full and interesting—and her
dilemma over whether to move across the country to pursue her dreams or stay
home for the safety of true love is so compelling—that the material that
constitutes the flashbacks could have been a fine coming-of-age drama in and of
itself. But of course there is something of greater spiritual magnitude at play
here, complete with an extremely literal white light that beckons her to let go
and follow it.
Should she stay or should she go? It’s a musical question
Adam is probably more familiar with, but Mia’s answer is never in doubt.