Perhaps fittingly for a film about a comatose teen, If I Stay has only the faintest of narrative pulses. But it wouldn’t have mattered even if the movie had suddenly flatlined, the screen abruptly cutting to a permanent black, in front of my very eyes – its dismayingly lazy writing and clinically detached direction had caused my eyes to glaze over and my mind to wander before even half an hour had passed.
It doesn’t make me happy to say such things about If I Stay. No, really. Going into my screening, I found myself cautiously excited for the film – or more accurately, for Chloë Grace Moretz, a tremendously talented young actress utterly deserving of her own Fault In Our Stars-sized phenomenon. Sadly, instead of watching Moretz take on a complex protagonist and deliver one-liners with enough emotional force to reduce entire rows of grown men to tears, I was forced to witness a very different kind of survival story than the one advertised. You see, If I Stay is not just the tale of a comatose teenage cellist choosing between life or death following a catastrophic car accident. It’s also the story of a gifted actress risking life and limb to wade through an unappealing mess of stinking clichés and confusing narrative constructs.
Tragically, there’s no happy ending for Moretz. Charismatic though she is, the actress is bogged down by If I Stay‘s labored structure and canned dialogue. For a film that completely hinges on its character’s internal journey, it’s a huge, even insurmountable issue that the script handicaps every emotional moment with writing so stiff that it makes the whole affair resemble a Twihard’s half-sketched idea of what a tearjerker should be.
What reasons are given for why Moretz’s lead, named Mia, should slip away into the great unknown? Her family, including free-spirited parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), are all gone. Her rocker boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) has dreams that differ from hers. And she might not get into Julliard. Why would she stay? Her grandfather (Stacy Keach), friend (Liana Liberato) and Adam all love her to pieces… and she might get into Julliard. So it goes in If I Stay, a film that attempts to explore a devastated teen’s mind without ever indicating it understands what goes on inside one.
Some of the set-up’s inherent flaws might have been forgivable had If I Stay taken its story somewhere interesting. Alas, it can’t even hold the lowest-common-denominator version of its plot together, and it only fleetingly makes sense (despite Mia being unconscious in a hospital bed, with If I Stay taking place almost entirely inside her head, she’s able to run around the hospital and check in on her friends and family??). As I racked my brains for answers to plot holes like that, the revelation eventually dawned that I was putting more thought into it than either screenwriter Shauna Cross or director R.J. Cutler did.
Adding to the sense of overwhelming dreariness is Cutler’s vanilla direction. A documentarian trying his hand at feature filmmaking, he drains every drop of passion from even the film’s most ostensibly dramatic moments, proving a downright bizarre choice for this movie. All the swelling music and tear-choked line delivery in the world can’t mask the fact that If I Stay is shot blander than an online tutorial vid.
Moretz deserves better. So does the rest of the supporting cast. Enos and Leonard bring a warm familiarity and surprising humor to their roles, while Blackley is a cut above most of the leading men in these YA-targeted flicks. Liberato, a powerful young actress in her own right, is criminally wasted, and Keach is used solely for purposes of audience manipulation (if there’s a single scene that will have theaters overflowing with tears, it’s his speech to an unconscious Mia as she considers stepping into the growing white light). As a whole, the acting is strong, but no one, not even Moretz, can overcome all the weaknesses present behind the camera and in the script.
It’s hard to say whether If I Stay will be met with open arms by the teenage demographic at which it’s squarely aimed. The tonally haphazard story structure confuses by fluctuating between romance, drama and even occasional comedy – all the while ensuring we never forget it’s being told by a tragedy-ravaged teen on the brink of death. And even to tearjerker fans, it should be more than a little off-putting that what consumes Mia’s mind the most is not her music, or her dead family members, but her angst-ridden boyfriend. Though her performance is stellar, Moretz’s chemistry with Blackley lacks the heat of other recent big-screen teen romances. And perhaps most disappointingly, If I Stay seems calculated at every turn, as if the screenwriter measured out exactly how much kissing, crying, monologuing, etc. would be enough to satisfy general audiences. There’s little authenticity to any of it, and absolutely no narrative thrust.
The film also concludes with one of the most insultingly abrupt, anticlimactic endings you’ll see at the movies this year. But you probably won’t be complaining after having sat through the rest of If I Stay. Judging by the results, the filmmakers apparently felt that the only way to make their comatose protagonist relatable was to induce a comparably drowsy state in its viewers.
Chloë Grace Moretz is luminous as always, but the lazy writing and dull direction she's saddled with here is so conspicuous that even the book's most ardent fans will likely leave disappointed.