“If I Stay,” based on Gayle Forman’s popular novel for young adults, is likely to appeal to youthful fans of the book and the movie’s star, Chloë Grace Moretz, an audience that may not recognize the clichéd situations and the artless dialogue for what they are. Older moviegoers (and more discerning teenagers) are unlikely to be attracted to this unabashed tearjerker.
The film adds a fantasy gimmick to a teens-in-love story. Sweet-natured Mia (Moretz), the 17-year-old daughter of two ex-rockers (Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard), is a talented cellist who hopes to get into Juilliard. That’s a problem, because her boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley), is a member of a rising band that spends a lot of time on the road. A long-distance relationship (the film is set in Portland) doesn’t appeal to him.
Driving on a snowy road, Mia’s family is decimated by a horrendous car crash that leaves her in a coma. At this point we are introduced to a second Mia, disembodied, who is able to observe things but can’t interact with the world. A nurse whispers to the comatose girl that it’s up to her to fight to live. We’re spoon-fed the complications of her relationship with Adam via flashback, but the movie’s heart consists of disembodied Mia trying to decide if it’s worth coming back to life.
There’s a wholesomeness here that’s hard to take, the film looks Disneyfied (though Disney actually had nothing to do with it) and prettified. The characters are too cute and too earnest. Even the music performed by Adam (and by Mia’s dad, in flashback) is remarkably tame.
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Director R.J. Cutler avoids subtlety and lays the syrup on thick, as if he were directing an after-school special. The troubled relationship of the two leads seems, well, trivial, and there isn’t much chemistry between the actors. The scenes set at the hospital are shameless emotionalism. Viewers vulnerable to this sort of thing are advised to bring a handkerchief or two.
The redoubtable Stacy Keach is on hand in a small role as Mia’s grandfather, his main function being to deliver the granddaddy of all schmaltzy addresses to the unconscious young woman.
Which brings up a key problem: The script, by Shauna Cross, is rife with shopworn and underwhelming lines and exchanges. (“Sometimes you make choices, and sometimes choices make you.”)
Moretz is an appealing young woman whose star is rising. She'll probably have an exceptional career, but “If I Stay” won’t be a highlight.