If I Stay (2014)
If I Stay is a film with only one real flaw, but my God is it a big one. On almost every other level, it's a very good film -- it's beautifully shot, it makes great use of music (as befitting a film where the two main characters are musicians), the actors deliver performances deserving of a much better film, and there are so, so many moments that, on their own, are brilliant. It's clear that this film was made by people who knew what they were doing, and wanted to make something better than your usual teen romance. The key word there, though, is "wanted", because, as a romance, this film fails on the single most important level: I did not, for one second, buy into the relationship between the two main characters.
I cannot overstate how great a failing this is, because it rips the heart straight out of this film and leaves it feeling hollow and sappy. The relationship between Chloe Grace Moretz's Mia and Jamie Blackley's Adam makes up the core of the film's main story arc, which is about Mia, a teenage girl and gifted cellist who is torn between going to Julliard and staying with her boyfriend Adam, a rough-hewn classmate whose career as a punk rock musician is just starting to take off. The rest of the story revolves around Mia and her family getting into a car crash that kills her parents and leaves her and her brother Teddy clinging to life in the hospital. Mia's soul somehow became detached from her body in the accident, leaving her wandering around the hospital as a ghost struggling to find a way to communicate with the staff and her grieving family, all the while looking back on her life decisions.
It wasn't for lack of trying on Moretz or Blackley's part, as both of them do the best that anyone could ask them to with the material they're given. Unfortunately, that material is composed of terrible dialogue that sounds like... well, like a teenage girl's idea of what deep and meaningful romantic dialogue sounds like. While it's, to quote a dated meme, still a better love story than Twilight, so is friggin' Deliverance. The lines coming out of Mia and Adam's mouths are horribly hackneyed, and did nothing to get me to care about the characters. As a result, Moretz and Blackley have no chemistry together, the two of them not feeling like they have the least bit of affection for each other; I certainly didn't buy that they were soulmates. Furthermore, the film is wrapped in a structure that may have worked on the page (I never read the book this was based on) but gives it a terrible sense of pacing on screen. The cuts between Mia's flashbacks to her life before the accident and her current struggle to survive in the hospital never flow well and are painfully jarring. Just as I was getting invested in one of those two stories, I was yanked right out of it and thrown into the other one. The film also relies far too much on Mia's narration to convey important plot points, a problem that is all too common to lesser page-to-screen adaptations. All too often, Mia tells us how to feel rather than letting us feel that way as a consequence of events on the screen, and it felt manipulative. Together, these problems collided into a perfect storm that made it impossible for me to care about the most important pillar of the film.
It's odd that Mia and Adam's relationship is bungled so badly, because the film does a much better job building Mia's relationship with her family. Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos were both cool and charming as Mia's parents Denny and Kat, a former punk frontman and riot grrl groupie who settled down long ago once they had kids, but still try to maintain their countercultural edge. You get a sense that Mia's uptight attitude and her interest in the cello and classical music in general are her ways of rebelling against her parents, turning the stereotype of the stodgy old Mom and Dad and their wild, rambunctious teen daughter on its head. One of the best moments of this was when, while practicing on her cello and listens to her father's critique, she tells him that playing a classical instrument is a lot harder than just banging out a punk rock song. Stacy Keach, likewise, is only in this for a couple of scenes as Mia's grandfather, but he stole the show in every one of them, helping deliver some of the film's most powerful moments. I cared a lot more about this family than I did about Mia and Adam's relationship, and it was a shame that the part of the film that was actually interesting got such short shrift in favor of the half-baked "high school sweethearts" story.
And the visuals! I can name so many moments of powerful visual style that did far more to raise emotion in me than any of this film's dialogue. The car crash at the beginning is conveyed beautifully without showing any of the carnage, and Mia's audition at Julliard, under intense pressure and with any mistake costing her her dream, was as tight and suspenseful as anything out of the best action and horror flicks I've seen all year. Bravo to the cinematographer for shooting this so well -- your work here earns no complaints from me. I also loved the music here, a great mix of classical and '90s punk/grunge. Even though the context that many of the film's musical performances occur in lessened their impact, removed from that context I was still able to shut my brain off and enjoy them on their own merits.
Score: 2 out of 5
I really wanted to like this film, as it did so much right. But its single great failing, the utterly tepid romance at the center of it, drags the whole thing down. Any teenagers looking to enjoy a good love story/weepy movie before school starts are recommended to watch The Notebook, Titanic, or The Fault in Our Stars again instead of this.