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Dustin Putman

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If I Stay  (2014)
2 Stars
Directed by R.J. Cutler.
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach, Gabrielle Rose, Jakob Davies, Ali Milner, Aisha Hinds, Gabrielle Cerys Haslett, Lauren Lee Smith, Adam Solomonian.
2014 – 106 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements and some sexual material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 19, 2014.
It takes all of about forty-five seconds for "If I Stay" to paraphrase in voiceover the John Lennon lyric, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Granted, this is not the most original way to start a film, but its sentiment is very much in line with a teen drama about facing one's mortality. A mostly faithful, if slightly homogenized, adaptation of Gayle Forman's best-selling 2009 YA novel, "If I Stay" has a number of similarities with 2007's underappreciated "The Invisible" (itself a U.S. remake of 2002 Swedish feature "Den Osynlige"), not the least being their shared premise of a high-schooler's out-of-body experience as his or her life hangs in the balance. In helming a picture that relies on a flashback structure, director R.J. Cutler (a documentary filmmaker making his fictional feature debut) doesn't stick every transitional landing, but when he gets it right he hits just the correct emotional sweet spot. Likewise, scribe Shauna Cross (2009's "Whip It") occasionally overwrites for her characters, and unfortunately some rather cheesy lines sneak through the cracks. The crucial choice which protagonist Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) faces, however, is loaded with truth, suggestion and consequence. Here is a story that, not unlike 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars," is about love and loss without necessarily hedging its bets on whether or not a girl gets a boy.

18-year-old cellist Mia is months away from graduating high school and anxiously awaiting word on whether or not she has been accepted into Juilliard. Her relationship with sensitive rocker boyfriend Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley) has become a little distant since he has been away on tour. She is dangling on the precipice of a life that is about to change now that she is growing up, but all of these concerns suddenly seem like nothing when she, parents Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), and little brother Teddy (Jakob Davies) are involved in a fatal car accident on a snowy mountain road. Unable to be seen or heard by anyone, Mia watches as her comatose physical body fights for survival in the hospital and Adam, her grandparents (Stacy Keach, Gabrielle Rose) and best friend Kim (Liana Liberato) struggle with the thought of losing her. Faced with the new terrifying reality of going on without her immediate family, Mia must figure out—and soon—if such an existence is one that she wishes to live at all.

"If I Stay" covers a grim subject in a way that still manages to be uplifting while not talking down to its audience. This is why Gayle Forman's book has made such an impression with readers, and the film does an admirable job of retaining most of what made its source material special. The exception—we might as well get it out of the way first—is in the differing way religion and the afterlife are treated. In the book, any sort of post-death hereafter is left an open-ended question mark. Mia did not grow up in a religious household and is not sure if her family is waiting for her on the other side. There is a brave, affecting segment in the novel where Mia discusses the only time she attended a funeral, and the conundrum that arose from her family witnessing a dishonest, impersonal church-led internment for a friend of theirs who was an adamant atheist. All of this is skittishly wiped clean from the movie adaptation, no doubt in an attempt to avoid offending any faith-based viewers. While this is begrudgingly understandable in its own way, less forgivable is the religious imagery—bright lights at the end of hallways, heavenly, CG-enhanced rays shining down—that reveals itself as Mia moves closer to death. Though these elements could have been even more overdone than they are, it still feels dishonest to the truth of Forman's story and the complex personal sensibilities with which she wrote it.

It is a tricky business reimagining published works of any kind for a visual medium—there is always the risk of disappointing readers if it does not match the pictures in their minds—and so it is important to also judge them on their own merits. By and large, "If I Stay" matches the ruminative weight of Forman's existential wonderments while standing on its own as a thoughtful drama about a very real, incomprehensibly devastating topic that no one should have to face. Despite this tragedy which Mia witnesses, director R.J. Cutler is aware that the heart of the film lies not in its doom and gloom, but in the fleeting moments of pure joy and beauty that make a person's time on earth so special. Moments like the day Mia's parents surprised her, after years of lessons, with a cello of her very own. Or the moment in which Adam takes her to the orchestra on their first date, and she says to him afterwards, "Why do I get the feeling you're about to mess up my entire life?" Or the moment when her grandfather accompanies her to San Francisco for her Juilliard audition, and she plays better than she has ever played before. Or, perhaps most special of all, when a backyard get-together with everyone she's ever loved turns into an impromptu group cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today," her cello no longer just a lonely solo instrument.

Chloë Grace Moretz (2013's "Carrie") is lovely as Mia, bringing grace and what feels like a world of authentic experiences to her role. Her assignment is difficult and demanding since she must basically play two characters—the Mia before the accident, and the spirit-like Mia after—but she pulls it off naturally. It takes the poor girl an awfully long time to realize nobody can see her, but Mia is otherwise intelligent and layered. Jamie Blackley (2012's "Snow White and the Huntsman") looks the part of Adam and is a charismatic on-stage performance—all the better to believe him as an up-and-coming musician—but he isn't quite as likable as one wishes he would be. Adam's fear of abandonment stemming from his nonexistent home life comes on harshly and strongly, and his attempt to right his wrongs after the fact are only partially convincing. He presents himself as a worldly sort, but clearly has just as much—if not more—maturing to do than Mia. Their relationship is pure—the Halloween-set scenes where Mia tries to disappear into the persona of a Debbie Harry rocker chick, only to find that he loves her the same no matter what guise she throws on, is worthy of a swoon—but will it survive? Neither of them pretend to know the answer. As Kit and Denny, Mireille Enos (2014's "Sabotage") and Joshua Leonard (2011's "Shark Night") embody dream parents who are there for their children, provide guidance and care, but also know it is important that they make their own mistakes. When they are harshly snuffed out of the present-day plot, the finality of their absence stings all the more every time they are seen in flashback.

As "If I Stay" draws to its crucial close, the urgency of its stakes builds and the difficulty of Mia's decision deepens. In the film's most wrenching scene, Mia's quiet but loving Gramps sits at her bedside and unleashes all of the pent-up emotions he's been trying to so stoically keep inside. In a performance of breath-catching humility and truth, Stacy Keach (2013's "Nebraska") is the picture's secret powerhouse weapon. His work here is as meaty as anything he's been given to do in movies in years. Elegantly lensed by cinematographer John de Borman (2009's "An Education") with a gray, beauteous chill in British Columbia (standing in for Portland and its surrounding areas), "If I Stay" overcomes its more hackneyed embellishments and mawkish dialogue for a sensitively composed tale where themes of sacrifice, understanding and courage ring identifiably, piercingly true.
© 2014 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman