A young woman, daunted by the massive crowd in a prestigious concert hall, nervously picks up the cello and begins to play. As she loses herself in the music, a warm wave of comfort washes over her, transforming the once shy performer into a confident, assured professional. By the time she finishes, she’s completely enraptured her hardened, skeptical audience. This electric scene out of director R.J. Culter’s adaptation of Gayle Forman’s best-selling novel, IF I STAY, perfectly parallels the ways in which cinema moves us. It challenges us to confront our fears, turning a visceral experience into one that alters our soul. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite totally get there with this wannabe cinematic concerto. Though Cutler is unable to sustain this kind of emotional momentum throughout the film, and Shauna Cross’ screenplay hits many false notes, there are fleeting moments of powerful, subtle connections.
Portland high schooler Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is unlike most girls her age. A cello prodigy raised by riot girrl-turned-travel-agent mother Kat (Mireille Enos) and punk-rock-drummer-turned-school-teacher father Denny (Joshua Leonard), she’s on the fast-track to Julliard and Yo-Yo Ma superstardom. That is until she meets her first love, local rock singer Adam (Jamie Blackley), and her world is turned upside down. Falling in love is the easy part. But what to do about their burgeoning musical careers that will set them on separate paths? As the young lovebirds attempt to figure this out (by breaking and making up), tragedy in the form of a horrific car-accident befalls Mia. Caught in limbo, in somewhat of a spirit form, she’s forced to make the heartrending choice between staying or going – life or death.
Are you crying yet? No? Neither was I. But I did have a lump in my throat that didn’t release until Moretz’s two scenes with Stacy Keach, who plays Mia’s grandpa. Only after their scenes – specifically the hospital bedside scene – did it begin to rain on my face and not stop. In fact, many of those third act bedside scenes are amongst IF I STAY’s most engaging. It’s the only time we’re hit with any kid of genuine emotional impact. Up until that point, there’s not a lot to like. Moretz and Blackley have no on-screen chemistry. Mia’s random flashbacks are triggered by a script device used to make a boring linear story appear more meaningful. And sporadic soft-focus shots take the place of real sentiment.
I’m not sure if it’s Cutler’s or Cross’ interpretation of Forman’s source material or if it’s the source material itself, but I had a major problem with Mia’s first love storyline being allotted more emotional weight than the loss of her family. Cinematically, that crushing blow is played as secondary to how “magnificent” the power of first romance can be. It comes across as an incredibly naïve notion, and for a narrative that has to potential to appeal to audiences beyond a teen fan base, that’s a severe handicap. Mia’s relationship with her parents has moments of purity, but due to their quippy/ all too perfect dialogue, it crosses the line into precocious territory. These “movie parents” don’t feel real, which stands to take audiences out of story. Plus, because Mia and Adam’s romance fails to ignite, Blackley is completely zapped of any charisma. Same goes for Moretz, an incredible talent who feels out of place here.
If there is one savior of IF I STAY, it’s how music is used as a lifeline – for each of the characters and for the movie itself. Music is the air that Mia and Adam breathe, and it’s in the blood and soul of her Mom and Dad. In subtle ways, it dictates how they relate to each other. The stirring soundtrack augments sequences, infusing them with an ethereal warmth the mediocre story lacks.
Perhaps the real tragedy of IF I STAY is that it had the potential to be a classic grief-tinged romance like LOVE STORY, THE NOTEBOOK, and even this year’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS. Rather than holding tight and not letting go, it leaves us in a metaphorical limbo like Mia herself, hovering high above the narrative body we so deeply yearn to connect to.
2.5 out of 5
IF I STAY opens on August 22 and is rated PG-13.
Courtney Howard is the Senior Editor/ LA Correspondent for VeryAware.com. She also is a contributing writer for ReelVixen.com, ThatsItMommy.com, and RockinMama.net. She resides in Southern California with her husband and perfect little dachshund.