If I Stay's blend of teen romance and supernatural melodrama doesn't break the YA mold, but it's a decent addition to the genre nonetheless.
In the film If I Stay, we find teenager Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) at a crossroads - having to choose between pursuing her dream of becoming a professional cellist or traveling a different road with her musician boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley). However, everything changes in an instant one day when Mia and her family get in a terrible car accident that leaves Mia in a coma, teetering on the edge between life and death.
Mia then finds herself having an out-of-body experience, which allows her to watch her family, friends, and loved ones gather around her comatose body at the hospital. As this happens, Mia also flashes back to her past and retraces the path of her relationship with Adam, in order to make a harder decision than she ever imagined she would have to face: whether to give up and let herself die or return to the world of the living and pick up the pieces of her shattered existence.
Based on the novel by Gayle Forman and scripted by Shauna Cross (Whip It, What to Expect When You're Expecting), If I Stay blends together a conventional teenage romance with a supernatural narrative framework that deals with very weighty subject matter. The juxtaposition of familiar coming of (young adult) age issues with far more heavy themes elevates the film above your average YA love story - just not enough for If I Stay to have the sort of crossover appeal that, say, fellow YA book adaptation The Fault in Our Stars achieved earlier this year.
On a directorial level, R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) does fine work with If I Stay, creating a structured yet free-flowing stream of consciousness narrative that maintains a steady pace throughout (even with its simple, character-driven design). Visually, If I Stay is solid on a pure compositional level; Cutler and director of photography John de Borman (The Full Monty, An Education) also shot much of the movie with a soft focus, which effectively communicates the head space of the film's young protagonist. This quality also makes it easier for Cutler and editor Keith Henderson (Justified, Dexter) to jump back and forth between the romanticized snapshots of Mia's past and the harsh reality of her present - without the effect being too jarring or ham-fisted, that is.
Cross' script has a bad habit of painting in broad strokes, but still manages to provide more insightful and impactful drama when it moves away from the heavy-handed storytelling techniques (see: Mia's voiceover narration). If I Stay's blend of teen romance and supernatural melodrama doesn't break the YA mold, but it's a decent addition to the genre nonetheless.
Chloë Grace Moretz does help to freshen up the more derivative elements of the story; she brings greater depth and a sense of naturalism to Mia, allowing the character to feel less like an over-used archetype (see: the sensitive, artistic introvert). Mia's boyfriend Adam, as a character, falls a bit into the "talented and handsome, yet bland" male love interest category often found in YA works. Actor Jamie Blackley (The Fifth Estate) still brings enough in the way vulnerability and charm with his performance to make Adam believable (enough so for the film's purposes, anyway); he and Moretz have perfectly affable chemistry together, as an onscreen couple.
Most of If I Stay's running time is focused on Mia and Adam's time together, though it still makes room to give certain of the adult actors a moment or two to shine. To be exact, Mireille Enos (The Killing) and Joshua Leonard (Higher Ground) as Mia's former punk rocker parents, along with Stacy Keach (Nebraska) as Mia's grandfather, each get the spotlight for long enough to make a lasting impact on the overarching story - and thus, strength the emotional aspect of the proceedings. Other cast members, such as Liana Liberato (Stuck in Love) playing Mia's friend Kim, just don't have enough to work with to leave all that strong of an impression.
If I Stay, when all is said and done, is a respectable young adult drama - one that will bring several members of its target demographic to tears at some point, but also one that has limited appeal to those who roll their eyes at the prospect of an unabashedly sentimental (or sappy, take your pick) teen romance, on principle. Ultimately, though, the film does a solid job of delivering on what it promised - and then some.
If I Stay is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 106 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material.
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