Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is an outcast in her own family. We know this because she tells us via narration, but also because while her parents and younger brother like rock music her preferred jams are of the classical variety. It’s enough to make you think she was switched at the hospital after birth isn’t it?
She’s seventeen and in love with Adam (Jamie Blackley), the lead singer of a local band that will change your life — they’re opening for The Shins! — and she’s eagerly awaiting a letter letting her know whether or not she’s been accepted into Juilliard. An impromptu snow day sends the family on a road trip and into the front grill of a truck leaving her parents dead, her brother injured and Mia standing over her own comatose body.
She quickly discovers that the decision to live or die is hers to make. We know this because a doctor whispers in Mia’s ear that it’s her decision to make. (The unspoken implication being that Mia’s parents — particularly her father who reaches the hospital alive — have decided to leave the kids behind and go.) Her ghostly, yet still meaty form wanders the hospital’s halls eavesdropping on loved ones, recalling her life to this point and deciding if the trouble she’ll get by staying is a better choice than the double she’ll get by going.
If I Stay plays to the basest needs and desires of teenage girls everywhere by crafting a lead character who defiantly makes everything about her, a boyfriend who feels like a YA wet dream of manufactured perfection and a conflict that in no possible way approaches anything resembling an actual conflict. The romance rings hollow, the premise’s conclusion is inevitable and the out of body shenanigans are laughable.
Mia loves playing cello and listening to Beethoven, but the idea that those interests make her an outcast are ludicrous. We never see her treated as such by anyone, at home or at school, and instead we see her constantly supported by family and friends for her talent. Her love story is equally shaky with Adam seemingly falling for her after glimpsing her playing at school. We’re given no reason to believe he would notice her let alone fall in love with her, and while it’s clear why a girl would like him — he’s dreamy! he’s in a band! he knows what he wants to do with his life! — it’s unclear why she would like him.
The bigger issue with Mia is in her character and supposed conflict. We get it, she’s a teenage girl, but she remains her sole interest from beginning to end. She hops into the ambulance at the accident scene with her own body without a second thought for her three family members still trapped in the car. When her brother Denny (Joshua Leonard) does reach the hospital she promises to stay by his side, and then like a dog distracted by a squirrel she immediately leaves to go follow her mopey boyfriend. She’s empowered late in the film not by anything of her own doing but instead by two separate outside confirmations of her own greatness. And I hate to be the one to say it, but if she hadn’t delayed the family trip at the beginning with her Juilliard letter angst, her family would still be alive. Harsh but true.
The character weaknesses would be less detrimental if the story featured an engaging conflict or structure, but that’s just not the case in Shauna Cross‘ script (and presumably Gayle Forman‘s novel). The entire premise hinges on Mia’s debate over whether she should stay alive as an orphan with a hot boyfriend or if she should go into the light — but at no point are we given a reason why she would possibly choose or even consider the latter option. There’s no promise of a heavenly family reunion, and given her previous claim to be an outcast from her family there’s no reason to think she simply can’t go on without them. Her grandparents (Stacy Keach, Gabrielle Rose) are still around, everyone in the world loves her and that cello ain’t going to play itself. Not to mention she’s narrating the damn thing which pretty much gives away her decision right upfront.
Seriously, this could just as well have been titled I’m Most Likely Going to Stay or If I Ate a Sandwich for all the weight the story carries.
The supernatural setup is presented by director R.J. Cutler with very little in the way of effects-laden flair — a few shots of two Mias in the frame, a white light glowing in the hallway — but the decision to avoid traditional shots of the “ghostly” character passing through objects and people leads to some awkward moments. She can’t open doors in this state (until she can), and people can’t feel her touch (until one can), but her feet slap audibly on the floor and a brief fist pounding on a window shakes the glass and echoes through the hallway. Most notably, there are more than a few instances where supporting characters and extras visibly move to get around what should be an invisible-to-them Mia.
This is the kind of dreck that gives YA novels and movies a bad name. Beautiful Creatures and, to a lesser extent, The Fault in Our Stars work thanks to a combination of smarts, personality and humor — none of which can be claimed by If I Stay — but more and more those examples are becoming rarities among a sea of lifeless, brainless and heartless garbage produced for a sadly indiscriminate audience. Spend your money on it or don’t… the decision is yours to make.
The Upside: Solid soundtrack; minor heartfelt moments; Stacy Keach
The Downside: Relationship not convincing in slightest; Mia is self-absorbed beyond reason; no conflict; poor structure; underage drinking isn’t cool
On the Side: Screenwriter Shauna Cross previously scripted Whip It and What to Expect When You’re Expecting.