Movie Reviews

'If I Stay': 'Ghost' for teens

By Justin ChangMovies - 04 September 2014 8:00 AM | Updated 1:23 PM

'If I Stay': 'Ghost' for teens

'If I Stay' trailer

Our Rating

3/5 Stars

A horrific road accident leaves a teenage girl stranded between life and death in 'If I Stay', a life-flashing-before-her-eyes melodrama that similarly hovers in a weird limbo between sensitivity and clumsiness.

Out-of-body experiences and gooey romantic interludes aside, this adaptation of Gayle Forman's 2009 bestseller hinges on the sort of relatably horrific worst-nightmare scenario that naturally invites, and rewards, a certain level of viewer empathy.

But while many in the audience may well find themselves getting misty-eyed as the screen fades to white, and softly crooned rock tunes flood the soundtrack, the overall execution is so pedestrian that it is possible to feel more moved by the filmmakers' good intentions than by the emotional content onscreen.

FOR THE "YA" AUDIENCE

Warner Bros' attempt to cash in on the current craze for mortality-obsessed YA (young adult) material – call it 'The Fault in Our Stars' – should enjoy decent staying power among the book's fans and beyond.

The "I" of the movie title is Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a lovely, kind of shy high-schooler and gifted cellist who lives in Oregon with her ultra-hip parents, Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), and her cute little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies).

Mia is already in an anxious state of uncertainty when the movie opens, awaiting an acceptance letter from Juilliard that might determine the future of not only her career, but also her relationship with her up-and-coming rock-star boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley).

But a much more crucial decision awaits her after a family car ride turns deadly one snowy morning, and Mia falls into a coma. Not all her family members are so lucky, though, in keeping with the emotional manipulation that comes with the territory, the truth about exactly who has and hasn't survived is deliberately withheld for maximum suspense and devastation.

Invisible and inaudible to those around her, Mia's spirit wanders the hospital, eavesdropping on her loved ones as they try to cope and pray for her to make it through surgery. She contemplates her uncertain future and wonders whether she should even bother regaining consciousness. 

MOVIE OF BLUNT CONTRASTS

'If I Stay' is a movie of blunt contrasts. Not just life versus death, but also extraversion versus introversion, classical versus rock, both of which are amply represented on the soundtrack (though 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' somehow fails to make an appearance).

The characters' wildly divergent musical tastes provide a convenient metaphor for their differences as individuals: Mia, who spends hours privately steeped in Bach and Beethoven, struggles to fit into Adam's ever-widening circle of friends, fans and groupies.

Their act of consummation is similarly couched in musical metaphors. Gone, alas, is the scene from the book in which Mia takes bow in hand and performs her own scintillating symphony on Alex's torso.

If 'The Fault in Our Stars' at times fell prey to the troubling suggestion that terminal cancer blesses you with a higher level of self-awareness, 'If I Stay' manages to confront its central tragedy on less noxious, more honest and accessible terms.

Yet the shifts between past and present never cast a spell or rise above a blandly workman-like feel.

Director RJ Cutler, a documentarian ('The September Issue', 'The World According to Dick Cheney') making his narrative feature debut, favours a largely flat, televisual presentation that almost counts as an intriguingly counter-intuitive choice for this semi-supernatural material, which in less subtle hands might have wound up in 'The Lovely Bones' territory.

Read also: Interview with RJ Cutler on 'If I Stay'

As ever, Moretz's intelligence and vulnerability as a performer makes it easy for the viewer to latch onto her screen presence, even if she comes off as a bit too self-assured to play the nerdy misfit to Blackley's teen heartthrob. (Still, she does loosen up eventually, aided in one scene by a Halloween wig that cheekily references Moretz's Hit-Girl days in 'Kick-Ass'.)

Cutler draws unsurprisingly fine work from the older actors, including Enos and Leonard as Mia's too-cool parents and Stacy Keach as her grandfather, whose attempts to make up for past regrets supply some of the film's more affecting moments.

Overall, there is a becoming modesty to the production, but one mystery that persists is the question of exactly when the film is set. It seems to be in a pre-internet, pre-social-media era, or at least an era when Juilliard still sends out letters by snail mail.

'If I Stay' opens in cinemas 4 September 2014

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If I Stay
  • If I Stay

    (2014)
  • Rated
    PG13 /
    Genre
    Drama
  • Language
    Eng
  • (1 Review)