If, during one of If I Stay’s generally overwrought but curiously unmoving emotional climaxes, you began humming “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, you’d be forgiven. After all, cello prodigy Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) has a rock ’n’ roll boyfriend in Adam (Jamie Blackley), and she could sure as hell use a little more Mick Jones and a little less Bach in her life.
That’s not to piss on Bach; it’s just that Mia is—to paraphrase Ferris Bueller—wound so tightly that a lump of coal in her ass would eventually turn into a diamond. And Adam—whose last name is Wilde (for realz)—is almost as uptight as Mia. He thinks her impending opportunity to attend Juilliard is going to blow up their West Coast romance. Hasn’t this guy seen YA movies before?
I didn’t want to be so cynical about If I Stay because despite its heavy breathing and hand wringing, it does get a few things right. For example, it hits first loves pretty squarely on the nose, with all the nervousness and self-doubt and bologna that accompany them. Plus, the producers wisely employ Stacy Keach to play Mia’s grandfather, and he gives the movie a shot of good ol’ fashioned gruffness with a chaser of kindness that’s lacking in the other characters.
But it’s hard not to be cynical about underwritten characters who are this perfect. Take Mia. She’s easy to parent. She’s smart. She’s a music prodigy. She avoids trouble. Even after she meets Adam-the-blandly-cute-rocker she avoids trouble (her idea of rebelling is dressing as Debbie Harry for Halloween).
The one spot of trouble Mia gets in isn’t even her fault. On a snow day, her parents decide to take her and her younger brother on a short road trip. And you know what happens on snow days in the Pacific Northwest? Trucks lose control and plow into Volvo wagons (duh). Mom, Dad and brother Teddy are killed (instantly, in surgery and in recovery, respectively), and Mia, having an out-of-body experience at the hospital, must decide whether she’s going to die or pull through.
It isn’t a bad idea (though I wonder whether Mom, Dad, and Teddy had similar out-of-body experiences and were all “FUCK IT”), and If I Stay plays out in a series of flashbacks recalling Mia and Adam’s love, breakup and possible reconnection. But somehow it’s all pretty flat, as the screenplay moves through about a half-dozen different endings with Mia changing her mind about a half-dozen times. Just pick already, kid!
That may sound a little cold, but the characters on screen never register as people, so it’s hard to care about them. Mireille Enos (playing Mom) plays her role halfway between her mom character in World War Z and her psycho drunk Special Ops DEA agent character in Sabotage. After Mia and Adam break up, watch Enos’ eyes and try to figure out whether she’s empathizing with Mia at the kitchen sink or figuring out the best way to cut her throat without the rest of the family knowing.
That’s a long way of saying the mind wanders when it should be engaged. Moretz does as well as she can, but it’s hard to carry a movie this impassive. It’s like the whole thing is on Zoloft. Director RJ Cutler got a better performance from Dick Cheney in The World According to Dick Cheney.
As for whether Mia stays or goes, you should probably know there’s a sequel to the book on which If I Stay is based. It’s called Where She Went, and the boyfriend is the narrator. Squee!
IF I STAY
Directed by RJ Cutler
With Moretz, Enos and Blackley
Regal Stadium 14