This generation of writers should be exceedingly grateful for this generation of actors, particularly in the sub-genre of Dying Teen Girl Dramas. Shailene Woodley‘s sensitive portrayal of a young cancer patient was the only reason not to walk out of “The Fault in Our Stars,” and now Chloë Grace Moretz performs similar alchemy on “If I Stay,” bringing depth and poignancy to a film that often threatens to have the emotional depth of a sad-face emoticon.
Screenwriter Shauna Cross has run the gamut from the underappreciated “Whip It” to the unbearable “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” and here she overloads the proceedings with lots of precious, dialogue-y dialogue. Just when it seems like “If I Stay” will be incapable of a genuine moment, however, Moretz and co-star Jamie Blackley (“The Fifth Estate”) will share a look between them that’s so palpably romantic that it magically erases up to three or four phony scenes that came before it.
Moretz stars as Mia, a cello prodigy who, despite being the daughter of former small-time rockers Kat (Mireille Enos) and Danny (Joshua Leonard), has chosen to live a sheltered life, devoting herself to the music of Beethoven and Bach. (As per the movie law that relates to any film featuring a cellist, the prelude to Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G” appears early and often.) Still, popular schoolmate Adam (Blackley), handsome lead singer and guitarist for a garage band with growing buzz, becomes completely smitten by the gorgeous girl whose idea of a locker pinup is Yo-Yo Ma.
We learn everything about them — and Kat and Denny’s ongoing support of Mia’s musical choices and her relationship (their “cool parents” bona fides are established to an unbearable degree) — in flashback, because “If I Stay” begins with a car accident involving the entire family, which also includes Mia’s younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies). As the four are taken to the hospital, Mia exists outside of her now-comatose body, watching what’s happening but unable to touch anything or to be heard by anyone.
As Mia’s life hangs in the balance, she remembers the ups and downs of her romance with Adam, currently in an iffy place because she has applied to Julliard despite her previous commitment to get an apartment with him in their hometown of Portland, Ore. (The four seasons of the Pacific Northwest are captured to notable effect by cinematographer John de Borman, whose experience with female coming-of-age tales also includes “An Education” and “Ella Enchanted.”)
And while Mia’s grandfather (Stacy Keach) and best friend (Liana Liberato) deliver pep talks to her recumbent body, her spirit must choose whether to remain on this plane of existence or to move on to that big string section in the sky.
Part of the problem with “If I Stay” is that Cross (adapting Gayle Forman’s novel) and director R.J. Cutler (the documentarian behind “The September Issue” and “A Perfect Candidate” makes his narrative feature debut here) never quite establish the underlying rules of their premise. Can spirit-Mia just decide to hop back into her body and regain consciousness? When spirit-Mia yells at body-Mia to wake up, whom is she addressing?
It’s also disappointing, given the two female writers responsible for this material, that so much of this talented, self-secure young woman’s decision regarding life or death comes down to The Boy, particularly since she’s been portrayed throughout as both independent and enamored. (Assuming it even is her decision: again, those pesky undefined parameters.) Mia’s feelings for Adam should come into play, sure, but so should her feelings for Yo-Yo Ma.
While many of the big moments of “If I Stay” can be easily dismissed, it’s the little ones that elevate the film to at least mixed-bag status. Those soulful looks between Moretz and Blackley, a heartfelt monologue by Keach about familial love and sacrifice, even a quasi-contrived moment where Mia and her cello are welcomed into a fireside hootenanny — these flashes are genuine, and they’re moving, and they’re what keep “If I Stay” from being a complete wash.
The film itself feels like the lesson that Mia learns from her cataloguing of her brief existence: Life can be painful, but sometimes it’s those fleeting moments that make the whole thing worthwhile.