Nutshell: I’d give If I Stay an A-. This is a movie that pulls all the right strings at all the right times. Yeah it’s in your face about it, but the story and it’s actors suck you in so totally that you won’t mind. Mia’s parents are a bit too perfect but that’s cool. Isn’t Gen X just the best anyway?
Being a teenager is rough. Ask any John Hughes film, or just pick up any of the zillion YA novels that have taken the world by storm of late. But for proud cello geek Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz), it’s about to get much rougher. Her beautiful but taken-for-granted world is about to be shattered as a car accident destroys her family, and leaves her in a coma. Will she have the strength to live and try to achieve her dreams after tragedy, or will she let herself slip away?
What I loved most about this story is the idea of family, and while the nuclear bit is important, family is so much more than the sum of your parents and any siblings you may have. It’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, “aunts”, “uncles”, BFFs, significant others. All the people that touch your life. Mia’s struggle is compounded when she has to decide to add these connections to the mix, and the many, many flashbacks show exactly how beautifully messy her life is. The cherry on top of that particular sundae is Adam (Jamie Blackley, The Fifth Estate), Mia’s rocker boyfriend, whose band is just beginning to get noticed. As Mia lies in a hospital bed after the accident — her “spirit” an insubstantial but aware part of her surroundings — family members come and go, and Adam tries desperately to see her. Cue the scenes of their meeting, their courtship, and their current difficulties!
As a grown-up, I sighed a bit at Mia’s sturm-und-drang. She’s a beautiful girl with a musical gift and a goofy but loving Gen-X-Grunge family. She’s even got the boy everyone wants. What’s the big deal? Ah, but everything is a big deal when you’re young. Plus, part of her musical gift comes with a cost; the possibility of leaving it all to attend Julliard, which is across the country from their Portland digs. And with Adam about to start touring, they seem to be pulled in two different directions. Amour!
Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) plays If I Stay like a fine cello, knowing when to come on strong and when to pull away. He also allows British Columbia — subbing for Portland — to be beautiful and dreamy, lending a picture postcard quality to Mia’s memories. Mireille Enos (The Killing) and Joshua Leonard (Higher Ground) play Mia’s parents Kat and Denny with just the right touch of hip anti-establishment groovy, and there’s a gentle but effective chemistry between the entire family. (Props also to Once Upon A Time’s young Jakob Davies as Mia’s younger brother Teddy.) Moretz easily handles the heavy lifting here, and her “spirit Mia” wandering the halls and reacting to her friends and family’s devastation only cements my idea that she’s definitely the next big heavy-hitter in Hollywood. Blackley’s chemistry with Moretz and her on-screen family is lovely, and he seems to know that though he’s the dude lead in this film, it’s Mia’s story, letting Moretz take center stage. Blackley will have the tweens and teens swooning, and can really rock out on the guitar. (BTW, Moretz learned cello, but a body-double was used for the hard-core playing.)
I may be touting this film’s nice blend of emotion, acting and setting a bit too much, but I need to emphasize this; an imbalance in a film like this could have landed If I Stay into syrup-land. Nobody wants gooey. Or even worse, a cold look at a story about death and survival by a director unable to get viewers invested. Luckily this movie is a lovely shade of grey, with laughter, sadness, love and acceptance mixed together nicely. Is it a weepie? Well, depends on you. I have to admit I grabbed for my napkin a few times during If I Stay. Damn popcorn, always getting salt in my eyes.