It can be moving and emotionally charged at times, especially with Moretz' strong acting, but its inconsistencies eventually fail in making the movie a strong standout in a pool of plenty other similarly constructed dramas
Life, love, and death—these are the three heavy themes the movie explores; the same three main themes every human being lives on as well. Which is perhaps why people, or at least avid moviegoers as myself, are adamant on having a film present these themes perfectly and realistically, because we are going through them constantly ourselves. Watching those themes play out in front of us, we tend to weigh them in comparison to our own experiences and judge them as good if it captures the complexity of real life, and, well, not-so-good if it doesn't, and instead treats the themes with picky shallowness.
It is with this thinking I took on If I Stay, a film by R.J. Cutler starring rising Hollywood actress Chloë Grace Moretz as Mia Hall, and English sub-newbie Jamie Blackley as Adam Wilde. As with most of the recent and popular teen-centered productions, If I Stay is based on a Young Adult book series of the same name by Gayle Forman.
Mia Hall is, in equal parts, a cellist, a wallflower, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a lover. The movie begins by showing us Mia having a seemingly ordinary winter breakfast with her family—a retired Riot Grrrl mom, a former-punk-drummer-now-English teacher dad, and a budding rocker of a little brother. They’re happy, funny, content, and absolutely clueless that this isn't actually and by all means an ordinary breakfast. This breakfast, in fact, would be the very last they'd take. The radio announces a cancellation of classes due to heavy snowfalls, and (yet) the family decides to go on a casual drive where a car brutally hits them and the movie fades into a sheer, blinding white.
Mia then becomes a ghost, following her body and her family’s to the hospital in dread. In flashbacks, we get to know her more and the life she is now struggling to keep. We learn that she is in love with classical music and her cello; that she has funny, loving parents (and not much else is revealed about her brother); that she is in love and in a relationship with a rocker named Adam; and that finally, this relationship, while sweet, and perfect, has its problems, especially if she’s going to Julliard in New York instead of staying in Lewis & Clark in Portland, where Adam is.
The movie goes back and forth--in seamless transitions too--Mia’s ruminations of her life and the present, which is set in the hospital where she is an a coma and one by one, her family members die. A random, caring nurse whispers to Mia’s damaged body that it’s all up to Mia now whether she wants to give up or fight to remain in this life. But the problem is, what is there to remain in now that she's lost a vital part of her existence—her family? Well, she has Adam of course, and her friend Kim, and her grandparents and a lot of family friends. But are they enough to support the tremendous lost?
That’s Mia’s problem, supposedly. Our problem, or rather, the movie’s problem, is that it didn’t clear up this emerging binary between choosing to live or die. See, in the hospital, in the present, Ghost Mia mourns her family and debates on whether she should just give up, having lost so much anyway, or fight and stick around. When it was reported by the nurses that her parents didn’t make it but her brother Teddy is recuperating, she promises to her comatose self that she will fight and survive, if only to support young Teddy. But when he dies too, all meaning seems to have been lost. So, this is important, right? If one of the main reasons why she doesn’t want to stay in this life anymore is because she’s lost her family—which as we have seen is a nice, nuclear and loving family—then why didn’t the movie explore that? In Mia’s flashbacks--our main source of knowing who she was--why was there a heavy focus on Mia and Adam’s love story? If the binary is choosing to live with Adam and the rest or die with her family, then shouldn’t the flashbacks be an equal balance of family and Adam? We see her lose a great family, and rightly does she cry about this, but we don’t know them, not like we know Adam. Aside from her father quitting his band, and her mother being a former anarchist, and her brother loving classic rock, what to do we know about them? They seem to be only cardboard cutout characters that only exist for and in relation to Mia. Heck, the longest conversation Mia had with her mother in the movie was about Adam.
They are the cool parents who love and advice their daughter, and the kid brother who annoys but loves her sister. Other than that, nothing much is revealed about their life, so that when they die, despite the constant showing of their coolness and greatness, we don’t care. We know Mia should, but because not much important conversations occurred between Family and Mia, her anguished cries of pain (which Moretz does excellently by the way) upon learning of their deaths seem hollow and vacant to us. And for me at least, a movie that detaches the audience isn’t much of a movie at all.
A lot of other things are left unexplained too, and this tends to taint the rest of my viewing of the film with a nagging persistence for answers. For example, what is Ghost Mia, really, and how did she come to be? I feel like because a lot of movies have done this spirit-is-awake-while-the-body-is-dead-or-half-dead bit (Just Like Heaven, Ghost, and Heart and Soul come to mind) it tends to become a tired skit that needs to be explained or done well to be passed without judgment.
And because of the mishandle of the family’s death, I can’t help but shake off the feeling that it would’ve been much richer and realer if the movie showed why Mia was so close with her parents, some events perhaps, that have shaped that tightly knit relationship. At one point in the movie, Mia says something about how life can continue when she will never hear the silent talks by the sink that is her mom, and she will never experience those great breakfasts where they bicker and joke around (or something like that). That was a nice, gentle touch to the movie, which I wish was developed more.
If I Stay is not a throwaway film though; it definitely has its gems. For as much as it ignored the urgency to show who her family members were, the love story of Mia and Adam is well crafted and hefty enough to be both beautiful and believable.
The love story seems, at first glance, to be forged in the Twilight vein of needing one another constantly and forgetting the rest, especially since it was only Adam whom Mia remembered enough to show us another person’s full and real other life. But they were saved from those pitfalls when the movie presented their problems, especially manifested in that one scene where Mia and Adam fought about lying and the hardships and falsity of maintaining a long distance relationship. Their exchanges in this fight were sharp, smart, and relevant. It gave some heft to their too-perfect love. (Or maybe this is just my single self’s bitter way of resolving Mia and Adam’s enviably pure and perfect love—but I digress). In and of itself, the flashbacks could have been a come-of-age movie.
And of course, there's Chloë Grace Moretz's acting. To those who have followed her, Moretz's flexibility and variety has been very impressive and entertaining to watch--from brutal and wise in Kick-Ass, and even 500 Days of Summer, to fragile and eerie in Carrie and Let Me In, and now, laidback and emotionally charged as Mia.
Lastly, and in a slightly unrelated note, there is this one flashback scene where Kim says that this is where she notices Mia at her happiest—a bonfire scene with friends and family huddled together in the comfort of fire, food, and a good jamming sesh that includes Mia playing her cello in tune with the guitars. I’d like to leave this scene alone and separate and keep it in a safe plastic bubble (Bubble Boy style) away from critics’ germs. I find this scene of happiness too genuine and blissful to receive flak from anyone.
So—should you watch If I Stay? The inconsistencies and lack may bother your viewing experience, but like me, you may be too deep in tears before realizing that (which is primarily why I think Rotten Tomatoes called the movie “manipulative” in its consensus). So if you’re after so-so tearjerkers a la A Walk to Remember or The Notebook, then this movie could be worth your money. But if you’re after a presentation of Life, Love and Death in a deeper, more realistic way—as it should be presented—I’d say skip this one, especially since another, earlier movie already succeeded in doing this. (Hint: it’s also based on a bestselling series and the author’s name rhymes with Ham Meal—well, sort of).
- Renee Cuisia