'If I Stay'
Once hyped as the next ‘Twilight’, ‘If I Stay’ serves up a painfully earnest soap opera for teens that’s as predictable as it is condescending. It’s a romance with vaguely Christian morals for the proto-hipster tween and teen set. In other words, it’s critic-proof until the core audience matures enough to feel embarrassed by the fact that they once swallowed this brand of swill without question.
Chloe Moretz stars as the type of quietly perfect teenage girl who no one seems to notice, which only exists in sappy YA novels. Born to a pair of reformed punk rock parents (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos), Moretz rebelled by becoming obsessed with classical music and mastering the cello. She lived a life of quiet musical obsession until her high school’s literal rock star Jamie Blackley took notice. Of course, they fell deeply in love. Between that and a magically functional family unit, everything in Moretz life was perfect. That is, until one day when a family car crash turns her into an orphan in a coma. At this point, Moretz plays her own spirit wandering around the hospital, caught between life and death while having flashbacks that flesh out her love story and provide her with sappily sentimental reasons to cling to life. Yep, it’s one of those movies designed to sell tissues and give teen girls impossible standards of love to strive for.
The biggest problem with ‘If I Stay’ is that everyone involved tries to present clichés as meaningful, purposeful art. Movies about almost-dead souls finding a reason to live have been made endlessly over the years (‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ being the most obvious example). There’s a formula to these movies and ‘If I Stay’ clings to it closely while providing the teenage girl target audience with a chaste love story, a tiresome emo rock soundtrack, underplayed Christian values and imagery, and a pretty boy to gawk at.
There’s nothing wrong with this type of movie in theory, I suppose. People tend to find comfort in familiarity and easy emotional manipulation. The movie doesn’t have a single second of screen time when it isn’t clear exactly how viewers are supposed to feel through big loud melodrama or a score about as subtle as a kick to the nuts. That would all be fine if this were a TV movie of the week with no pretenses of art, but director R.J. Cutler (also the creator of TV’s ‘Nashville’) plays it all big and important, as if he’s found a fresh story that everyone needs to experience because it finally cracks the code to how life is totally supposed to be lived, man.
The central casting is also a bit of a problem. Moretz is clearly bored and disinterested throughout. That makes perfect sense given that her breakout roles in ‘Kick-Ass’ and ‘Let Me In’ were exciting, eccentric characters, while the protagonist of ‘If I Stay’ is a purposely dull blank slate for any and all teen girls to project themselves onto. Likewise, Jamie Blackley gives a flat performance of a flat role, furrowing his eyebrows and looking sad or smiling wide and appearing dashing with absolutely zero middle ground between those two extremes. He’s not a character; he’s a love story fantasy and not even a particularly good one. Oddly, the only two actors worth watching in the film are Leonard and Enos, who play warm, lovable, unconventional and completely believable reformed rock kids as parents. Their roles are so joyously and naturally played that you’ll often wish the movie could be about them. But it’s not, and it’s hard to imagine that the target teen audience will care that the parents are depicted so wonderfully.
That speaks to the problems of the film as a whole. It’s just a series of wrong notes. Everyone involved with the production had their hearts in the right place and wanted to make something moving. However, the bits that work are tangential and unimportant, while the heart of the film is a dull and repetitive drag. It’s a mess, but it’s based on a bestseller with a built-in audience of love-starved teens. It’ll probably be a success, and there’s apparently a follow-up book just waited to be adapted into a sequel. God help us all.