Dave White
If I Stay Review

Dave's Rating:

2.5

I know, I know, it's serious.

Role-playing one’s own demise, however privately, isn’t just for goth kids or Harold & Maude superfans; every teenager knows that death is often more romantic than romance, that mortality can be as sexy as actual sex. It’s practically a biological imperative, a developmental need, to imagine the world without you, your family, or your friends. It's as mundane as making out with a pillow.

It’s why the “teenage tragedy” pop record surged in popularity in the 1950s. It’s why Ordinary People’s hero is a suicidal 17 year-old whose brother dies in a boating accident; it’s why The Perks of Being A Wallflower obsesses over the Smiths’ “Asleep.” And it’s why The Fault In Our Stars bulldozed the box office and turned your favorite tween into a sobbing wreck.

If I Stay, then, serves the very real purpose of providing a wickedly inviting fantasy scenario, one that conflates sexual awakening, late adolescent desires for absolute independence, and brave struggle for survival, even as others drop like flies.

Heroine Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a shy, gifted cellist pursued by a sensitive-yet-swaggering rocker boy (Jamie Blackley), a kid whose run-of-the-mill band is inexplicably going places fast. Mia’s aging, formerly punk rock parents (Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard) are the kind whose insufferable coolness is matched only by their sweet devotion to their children. So when they encourage her to stop practicing her cello for a moment and spend a Snow Day taking a road trip, when one icy car accident later everyone is in the hospital, it’s Mia’s turn to experience the fantasy from the inside out. Who lives and who dies is almost beside the point. This is a narrative of (harmless) narcissism.

With her body in ICU and her brain submerged in a coma, Mia’s soul walks the halls of the hospital, eavesdropping on the anguish of friends and family, while flashbacks encourage her to remember what she has to live for. R. J. Cutler (The September Issue) working from a Shauna Cross (Whip It) screenplay adapted from Gayle Forman’s novel, presents this scenario as matter-of-fact rather than supernatural. He and cinematographer John de Borman envelop the characters in a cozy quotidian blanket: a Pacific Northwest full of perfectly overcast days, a lightly bohemian family home where neighbors jam together with musical instruments around a backyard barbecue’s bonfire, clean rock clubs and a functioning high school that hasn’t yet gutted its music program. Nothing is special; everything is inviting.

Like Fault before it, If I Stay enjoys the best of several softened worlds, where teenage love suffers no awkward rites of passage, where the death of others is both sorrowful and freeing, where the possibility of your own tragic end is just a challenge to your will. Of course you'll be stronger than anyone has ever given you credit for being, and your own obviously deserved immortality is practically a given. The title itself contains the suggestion of choice in the matter, a conditional decision made only if everyone around you tells you how great and lovable you are.

That all this refuses to sink under its own self-absorbed weight is due to Moretz, a young actor whose innate confidence keeps us from worrying too much about her fate, and to veteran Stacy Keach, called upon to deliver a moving monologue about the mistakes made in the course of a long life. Their mutual appeal will see through any audience member not currently in need of the film's not-so-sly message of ultimate teen power over life and death.

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