There were times when I was genuinely surprised how effective and moving this adaptation of Gayle Forman's hugely popular novel was, but with the help of an (mostly) impressive cast of actors and a deliberate attempt not to let the proceedings get too sappy, IF I STAY keeps its emotional bearing steady and deliver a version of a love story not often seen.
The film is the story of Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), a promising young cello player who is on the verge of becoming something great in her field. She's been accepted by Juilliard, which would mean leaving behind her family (including former rock musician mother and father, played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) in the Pacific Northwest. But the hardest part of leaving her hometown is the separation from her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), a rising rock star in his own right, who begins pulling away almost as soon as Mia brings up the idea of heading to New York.
Mia's life is rich and full and rewarding and loaded with people who love her, so it seems all the more tragic when her family are involved in a car accident that puts her in a coma, one from which she is somehow able to observe her surroundings via an out-of-body experience that takes her back and forth between her present condition in a hospital bed, with those who love her visiting and talking to her, and through a tour of her memories of all the things and people she loves most dearly, including her music. Not everyone in her family survives the accident, and the thought of rejoining the waking world without them is possibly more than Mia can take, and the story sets up a scenario that effectively makes the choice of whether to wake up or slip away Mia's entirely.
The sequences in the hospital are actually fairly standard-issue bedside stuff. A slow, steady parade of visitors comes to Mia's room over the course of several weeks to deliver heartfelt pleas for her to fight to live. The one exception comes from her grandfather (beautifully played by Stacy Keach), who lets her know that if she would find it too painful to return, it's okay to let go. Director R.J. Cutler (THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE) does fairly solid work handling the highly emotional material with maturity, but that scene in particular is so perfectly designed to make an audience cry, there's no choice but to give in.
That's actually how I feel about most of IF I STAY—you either buy the premise or you probably won't even bother walking into the theater. The movie never becomes some sort of faith-based exercise, yet there is a loose spirituality to the whole affair. Mia believes that those she's lost will probably be waiting for her on the other side. Moretz has been acting for almost as long as she's been forming sentences, and her skills at bringing the unlikely a bit of credibility (as she did in the KICK-ASS films and CARRIE, for example) are on full display here. She's the most human, uncertain, flawed character in the film, which you wouldn't expect from a film about a prodigy, and I don't think it's written into the Mia character; it's something Moretz instinctively bring to the role.
Blackey doesn't fair as well as Adam. He's convincing enough as a rock star on the rise, but very little about his performance made me believe a young woman like Mia would fall for him once she got past his cool-guy hair and catchy music. Not that she doesn't throw herself into the relationship like any overachiever would, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Mia's ultimate life-or-death decision doesn't seem influenced by anything Adam says to her at her bedside. Whether this is the fault of the actor or simply an underwritten role, Adam is a dud of a character, which normally we could overlook if he wasn't in so much of the damn movie.
IF I STAY has enough going for it to just recommend (barely). It offers a different and appealing vantage point to view this story of young love without forgetting to allow us to care about the characters. There are higher stakes here than in most young adult tales, but in the end the film is about finding the things in your life that you love and mean the most to you. It doesn't attempt to be life affirming, but that doesn't mean a lot of people won't find it so.
I was impressed at the emphasis on a loving family who not only support its daughter's artistic inclination but her choice in boyfriends; it actually startled me that the parents weren't painted as disapproving types and instead had confidence in their daughter as a person with a brain who tends to make smart choices. Maybe I should take back what I said about the film not being life affirming, because the family scenes are far more inspirational than the romance elements. In a strange way, you have to look to the periphery of IF I STAY to see its greatest moments, and that fine by me.