If I Stay
For a movie about a girl in a coma, there’s a surprising amount of life to director R.J. Cutler’s If I Stay. Unfortunately, for a movie about a girl in a coma, it’s a major problem that If I Stay nearly flatlines whenever its heroine is unconscious (which, as tends to be the case with most coma patients, is quite often). This is essentially the equivalent of saying that Twilight is good except for all the parts with vampires, or that Divergent works during all of the scenes in which none of the characters are doing…whatever people do in Divergent. And yet, despite the narrative failures of its central conceit and the insidious implications of its primary conflict, If I Stay is nuanced and humane in a way that films of its kind seldom are, anchored by an endearing lead performance from Chloë Grace Moretz.
More than anything else, If I Stay is the movie that finally answers the question: “What if The Lovely Bones *hadn’t* been a crime against cinema?” Based on an immensely popular Gayle Forman tearjerker of the same name (“Read it and weep” boasts the pull-quote on the paperback’s cover), If I Stay takes a number of rather obvious cues from the Alice Sebold novel that provided the source material for Peter Jackson’s greatest failure as a director (and possibly as a man). Both stories center around a young girl who narrates her own journey after being violently separated from her body, but only Forman’s heroine is given the chance to return to it.
Mia Hall (Moretz, who seems to look younger with each subsequent role) is a gifted 17-year-old cellist with a broken heart and a bright future. She spends her days anxiously waiting to hear if she got into Juilliard, and her nights lamenting the recent demise of her relationship with Adam (Jamie Blackley), the dreamy musician who “messed up her whole life.”
While Mia’s reformed rocker parents can’t figure out how they produced a child with such classical leanings, her mom and dad (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) nevertheless provide her with the kind of unadulterated love and support that only movie parents can. In fact, the Hall family is so unfailingly warm and affectionate that not even Stacy Keach’s character is allowed to be an asshole (the surliest man in showbiz plays Mia’s grandfather, and eventually earns the film’s only genuinely moving scene). Of course, no one is more damned than a family that’s happy at the beginning of a drama. When a snow day is unexpectedly declared for schools in the Portland area, Mia’s parents decide that a drive around some winding country roads, slick with black ice, would be the best way for the family to spend the morning together. Because that’s exactly why snow days are a thing. Cut to a head-on collision that instantly kills Mia’s mother, and leaves her father, her towheaded younger brother, and herself in critical condition.
Hang on, there’s more plot. Though Cutler mercifully spares us a cheesy effect of a translucent Moretz peeling away from her lifeless body, the accident nevertheless turns Mia into one of those desperate movie specters who’s invisible to everyone but the audience. She gets to watch herself in a coma, and the audience gets to watch her watching herself in a coma. It’s as riveting as it sounds, this Inception of comas.
Fortunately, most of the movie occurs via flashbacks that recount the year leading up to the Hall family’s fatal car crash, the narrative narrowing in on the burgeoning relationship between Mia and Adam. Puppy love in sheep’s clothing, their whirlwind romance (Nicholas) sparks Mia to blossom from a wallflower into a tiny adult. And while a few of these scenes make it feel as though the characters are quoting from a YA romance novel rather than adapting one, the interplay between Mia and Adam is seldom overwrought, and the moments that tip into eye-rolling shlock are excused by high school naïveté (“Haven’t you ever even been in a long distance relationship before!?” Adam angrily barks at his girlfriend, his sentence ridiculous in at least three different ways).
It’s pivotal that Mia is as recognizably overwhelmed by the intensity of her relationship as we are, and that Moretz never allows the character to lose touch with the lacuna of paralyzing insecurity that tends to define our teenage years. And whatever time the actress spent learning her way around the cello was time well spent; Mia is a girl who finds her place when there’s a bow in her hands, and Moretz needs little more than the dip of a shoulder to express how music tectonically reshapes her character.
If anything, Mia deserves to be in a much better movie (for his part, Blackley plays Adam with adequate conviction). Given the documentary focus of R.J. Cutler’s long and accomplished career, it’s strange that If I Stay flubs its themes and structure (individual scenes are conveyed via generous and unfussy direction, the flashbacks playing out in a soft haze of memory). Cutler has been shaping American lives into gripping narratives since he commissioned DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus to make 1993’s seminal political portrait The War Room, but he struggles when working beyond the bounds of the real world.
If I Stay is the latest in a long line of films that backhandedly perpetuate the vile idea that people who lose a prolonged medical battle simply aren’t as strong as the survivors, or as worthy, or as loved by their family. The degree of control that Mia is given over her ultimate fate isn’t just medically inaccurate, it’s emotionally dangerous. And while If I Stay is surprisingly frank in some respects, Cutler is still swindled by the disingenuous idea that Mia’s disingenuous choice is more interesting than her options. No matter what happens to Mia at the end, the real tragedy of If I Stay is that it didn’t have to be one of those movies in which someone walks towards the light.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.