If I Stay Directed by R.J. Cutler (PG-13)

September 9, 2014

I’m all for warmth and deep feelings, but If I Stay is ghoulish, plowing forward with death and unbridled selfishness, never registering how weirdly it plays all stitched together. Mistaking control for adoration, If I Stay makes Twilight look like Gloria Steinem.

 

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

If I Stay makes Twilight look like Gloria Steinem.

 

Raised affectionately by her post-punk parents, Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has devoted her life to classical music and the mastery of her cello. Showing romantic interest is Adam (Jamie Blackley), an older boy who’s the lead singer of a popular high school band.

 

While unsure of his intentions at first, Mia decides to take a chance with Adam, and the pair embark on a relationship that’s gentle, but tested by outside commitments.

 

When Mia’s family, including younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies), is involved in a car crash on a snowy road, the teen is pushed out of her body, forced to witness the fallout from the accident as a spirit, recalling the ups and downs of her time with Adam, tempted to give up and die while stuck in a coma.

 

Adapted from the 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, If I Stay is chopped up into bite-sized pieces in a script that jumps around in time, mimicking the swirling headspace of the protagonist. This blender effect quickly loses director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue), who makes a game attempt to identify the present and past through blurring techniques, but all that does is make the moviegoer unsure if the film is in proper focus.

 

As with most book-to-screen translations, there’s a lot of exposition to work through, leaving the first half scrambling to connect the dots. It’s a losing battle with this material. Supporting characters, such as Mia’s friend Kim (Liana Liberato), are undefined and there’s a woman floating around the background named Willow (Lauren Lee Smith), who must play a more important role in the book, as she factors heavily into the third act, but it’s never clear who she is.

 

Adam is the most troubling aspect of the movie, depicted as an emotionally manipulative borderline alcoholic who fails to support his girlfriend when an opportunity arrives to expand her cello skills at Julliard. Adam happily takes off on tour for weeks at a time, but when something genuinely amazing happens to Mia, he makes her feel bad about it.

 

If I Stay struggles to play up Adam’s hissy fits as spirit, but he’s contemptible, while Mia’s given a lobotomy to keep the film in motion. If a life in service to Adam’s needs is the alternative, perhaps death is best for Mia.

 

It’s not sweet or sincere, and the climax wrongfully suggests a happy ending, when the reality of the situation is frightfully dire. Hoping to coast on swoon and melodrama, If I Stay misses the point, passing on the examination of choice, more comfortable extracting tears than giving the audience something to think about.

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