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Mia (Chloe Moretz) is a quiet, gifted but socially introverted high-schooler who has been dating Adam (Jamie Blackley), an extroverted rocker, for several weeks. It is Mia’s first legitimate relationship, and her closest friend asks her how it’s going. “It feel big,” the girl replies, with the most amount of honesty a teenager can muster.
So does If I Stay. From a teenager’s perspective, it must seem big. And yet, on scale, it’s a very small story. It centers around a first crush, and all the bells and whistles that come with it. That first kiss. The first moments of intimacy in a young girl’s life. As stakes in a movie drama go, they are small. But because of when they take place on Mia’s emotional timeline, they feel enormous. Overwhelming.
Then something authentically big happens, and If I Stay buries its hook. While traveling with her family on a snowy road, Mia’s car crashes. She’s plunged into a coma, but her spirit remains, left to survey the damage. Her younger brother is in critical care. Her parents’ fate is unknown. And Mia must make a choice. Return to her body, and deal with the horrible aftermath of the wreck, or drift toward that comforting white light. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision for her.
After Carrie and Kick-Ass, it’s refreshing to see Chloe Moretz playing a normal teenager, even though she eventually has to play Mia as an apparition. The way that If I Stay is structured -- adapted from Gayle Forman’s bestselling novel by screenwriter Shauna Cross – the majority of the story is told in flashback, giving Moretz an opportunity to explore Mia and the relationships she has with friends and family. She’s a talented musician born to former punk rockers (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos). She dreams of attending Julliard, where she’d continue to master the cello. But her passion for classical music is replaced by an infatuation with Adam, despite the fact that she knows he’ll likely derail her promising future.
If I Stay starts strong enough, establishing Mia as a believable teen and maximizing the flashbacks to help us understand these characters so that we’re invested in the decision set up by the movie’s title. The film embodies this passionate vibe that comes from hanging around artists and musicians. It grimies up the formula just enough to keep things interesting. When you step back, you see that Mia lives a pretty spectacular life, and though it has been tossed into disarray by the tragic car accident, Moretz portrays her as a stoic, independent woman who’d be able to pick up the pieces and possibly start anew, likely with the supportive Adam at her side.
Then, like the car riding along that snowy road, the movie starts to swerve into uncomfortably melodramatic territories, and it isn’t long before any forward progress established by director R.J. Cutler smashes into an embankment, as well. The clichés start to litter the road the longer If I Stay lingers, and most of the aspects that were passionate and hot at the onset become stiff and silly the longer the film plays out. By the time a gaggle of good-intentioned musicians enact a jam-band rendition of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” around a bon fire, all of the goodwill generated by the early intentions of If I Stay are truly spent. The film literally overstays its welcome.
I’ll say this, however. My preview crowd didn’t seem to mind the melodrama. They largely devoured If I Stay like it was a bowl of soup waiting for them on a cold and stormy evening. In fact, during one particular scene where Adam declared his love for Mia, half the audience audibly gasped and sniffed into tissues, while the other half shushed them violently so they didn’t miss the next saccharine-sweet line of puppy-dog dialogue. Something tells me, if If I Stay ran an additional two hours, most of them would have stayed.