Artfully assaultive, "If I Stay" is better than average young adult material, cleverly adapted from Gayle Forman's 2009 novel about a teenage cellist experiencing true love, a terrible car crash and magical realism for the first time.
Young adult fiction comes in too many shapes, sizes and qualities to court generalizations. But here goes. Director R.J. Cutler, who comes out of documentaries, reality TV ("Flip That House") and series television ("Nashville"), has succeeded with "If I Stay" where several recent movies taken from teen-aimed fiction have come up a little short. I liked this one more than "Divergent," for example, or — the more apt comparison point, utopia trumping dystopia — "The Fault in Our Stars," which was more or less saved by Shailene Woodley as the cancer patient staring mortality and her first serious boyfriend squarely in the face.
"If I Stay" ups the dramatic stakes. Chloe Grace Moretz is Mia, an obsessively devoted cellist aiming for a Juilliard tryout, growing up in an idyllic, funky Portland, Ore., household. Mom (Mireille Enos) and Dad (Joshua Leonard, looking considerably less spooked than he was in "The Blair Witch Project") come from the alt-rock world. Mia, who has a younger brother, does not, which sets her at odds with her surroundings, but not in such a way as to make anyone raise their voices and disturb the domestic tranquillity.
By senior year, though, Mia has fallen hard for a slightly older boy in a band of great promise. Adam, played by Jamie Blackley, represents one option for Mia's future. Stay in the Portland area and move in with Mr. Right, YA rocker division? Or follow the Juilliard dream?
Fate intervenes in the form of a wintertime car accident, which leaves two members of her family dead and two more hanging in the balance. "If I Stay" becomes the tale of a new set of options for Mia: Live or die? After the accident, which leaves her in a coma, she's able to observe her present crisis as well as events and developments of her recent past, the way Scrooge did in "A Christmas Carol." Mia's fate is presented entirely as a matter of will and personal choice. As the wise nurse in attendance (Aisha Hinds) utters: "If she wants to live, she better start fighting."
Working from Shauna Cross' script, director Cutler doesn't treat this fantastical premise for anything resembling grit. Each scene, every aspect of Mia's romance, the one we see unfolding in flashbacks, is perfectly coiffed, with the cinematographer John de Borman pouring on the saturated colors and the appealing shadows. Yet there's a compelling push-pull to the Mia/Adam relationship and its stressors, more nuanced than you usually get in this sort of thing. And while the target audience may prefer the more benign and placating lessons of "Fault in Our Stars" (live for today, seize life, grab the bull by the horns, et al.), scene to scene there's more going on in "If I Stay." When Stacy Keach, for example, settles in at the hospital bedside in the role of Mia's grandfather, Cutler has the good sense to park his camera and let a seasoned actor do his job, which is to make the audience cry.
As a busy star on the rise, Moretz, I suspect, has a lot to tune out as a young actress, even if she doesn't read the troll-ridden comments board at IMDb.com. She's learning as she goes, though like anybody she's at the mercy of the movie she's in. Sometimes her wide-eyed emoting would benefit from more distance from the camera; she has a way of hitting one note, hard, rather than working in chords. But in her scenes with Blackley, who nearly makes the dreamy love interest a human being, some emotional truth emerges. Cutler is selling a certain kind of product with "If I Stay," but he sells it honestly and well.
"If I Stay" - 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some sexual material)
Running time: 1:47
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