R.J. Cutler’s teen drama If I Stay has the pretentiousness you’d expect from a movie about people from Portland, Oregon. That’s because it embodies the holier-than-thou Portland attitude frequently skewered on the hilarious show Portlandia. Since If I Stay shares this arrogant mindset, it’s hard to watch it without laughing, especially when the lead character grapples with insignificant problems instead of serious ones.
Mia Hall (Chlöe Grace Moretz) is a talented cellist caught between worlds. She doesn’t fit in with her peers, but she doesn’t identify with her family either. Things change when she meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), a rocker who is instantly smitten with her. Mia falls for him and everything goes well, until his band’s increased touring strains their relationship. Her entire life comes apart though, after a car accident kills her parents and places her in a coma. During an out-of-body experience, she must decide whether to wake up and live a painful life or to let go.
One thing that If I Stay absolutely nails, is what it’s like to be young and in love. Like other people their age, Adam and Mia are completely unable to fathom that their destinies might lie in separate directions, which causes fights since Adam wants to stay on the West Coast and Mia wants to try something new. Adam acts like a typical immature 19-year-old when Mia auditions for Juilliard without his blessing and even though his wounded behavior is true to form, it’s still annoying.
Another great aspect about If I Stay, is how the movie treats sex like a normal part of Adam and Mia’s relationship. Thankfully the film’s writer Shauna Cross doesn’t turn their story into one of those tired will they/won’t they scenarios. Appropriately, the real question in this picture is whether Mia should come back to a life without her loved ones. The answer obviously is a complicated one that requires time to contemplate.
Given those grounded facets, you’re probably wondering how this picture could come across as pompous. Blame it on If I Stay’s melodramatic story and trite dialogue. Mia’s struggle over feeling like an outcast at home is such baloney because her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) are incredibly loving and supportive. Plus they share a huge network of friends with Mia, who are equally encouraging. Her anxiety about getting into Juilliard and issues with Adam also feel tiny in comparison to the more important drama of losing her family.
For a large portion of the movie, Mia narrates as she takes us through flashbacks of her life. Not only is the narration itself a lazy tactic, but it’s filled with banal comments about love and how quickly life changes. Dialogue between the characters has stilted expressions too like, “Sometimes you make choices and sometimes choices make you.” These are the moments that will keep you rolling your eyes.
The biggest issue plaguing If I Stay is that documentarian R.J. Cutler seems out of his depth as a director. There is inconsistency both from a visual perspective and tone throughout. Flashbacks have a glassy filter that comes and goes, while moments that should be emotionally intense lack urgency (like the car accident).
Since this film is an adaptation of a book by Gayle Foreman, it’s tough to tell if any problems with the story or dialogue are rooted in her source material, particularly if you haven’t read the novel like me. But one thing is for sure: this movie squanders a great opportunity to explore the place between life and death by concentrating on minute teen drama instead.