IF I STAY Review: Don’t Just Stay – Stay Away
Every so often an actor or actress comes along that finds their way into my blind spot – that place in my cinematic field of vision where I know the name and I probably recognize the face, but I just can’t connect the two. It isn’t a reflection on the talent, it’s simply the law of large numbers: I process so much film-related information from the last century that some stars – old and new – get a little lost in the field … that blind spot.
Most recently, that blind spot dweller is actress Chloë Grace Moretz.
The Atlanta-born Moretz has an impressive resumé for a 17-year-old, with numerous high-profile TV episodes (live action and voice work) and three dozen (!) films to her credit, including 2010’s Kick-Ass and Let Me In, and 2011’s Hugo. Given how competitive the world of child acting is, no one has the career she’s already had without doing good work and making smart choices.
Thus my befuddlement over If I Stay, a film that neither showcases her talent nor proves any shrewdness in her (and/or her management team’s) decision-making skills.
The drama, from director R. J. Cutler and based on the YA novel from Gayle Forman, is told along two timelines. One timeline is the tragic day in the life of Mia Hall (Moretz), a gifted teenage cellist and Julliard hopeful. On a fateful snowy day when schools are closed, the family decides to go for a drive because the roads don’t look too bad. An oncoming truck hits black ice on a winding road and crashes into the family head-on, leaving death and serious injury in its wake. Mia’s body is in a coma, but her spirit has an out-of-body experience that allows her witness everything that happens after the accident.
The second timeline is a series of (mostly) linear flashbacks that tell Mia’s story from childhood to current day, with a large portion of the story focused on her cello playing and her young love with Adam (Jamie Blackley), a high school classmate who plays guitar and sings in an up-and-coming Portland punk band.
As Mia relives her past and tries to make sense of her present, her future – her life – hangs in the balance.
I don’t think Moretz will ever find her way back into my blind spot, because it’s hard to forget anyone who is in one of the worst films of the year.
The troubles with If I Stay begin at the film’s foundation: its script. Of course with any film the script is critical, but a film like this, where the tragedy occurs early, requires strong storytelling and character building. We haven’t had a chance to connect with the characters, so we have to be transformed from passive eyewitnesses to tragedy (occurring to a family we just met) to vested members of that family. It never happens.
The flashbacks are stilted and the characters are walking clichés. Rocker parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) breed a classical cellist and make sacrifices when they hear how good their daughter is. A rocker boyfriend can’t be more opposite than the girl he loves but they fight to make it work despite their differences and conflicting career paths. A grandpa (Stacy Keach) seeks personal redemption through his granddaughter because he may have blown it with his son.
Even the hopes of attending Julliard are sullied by a mawkish contrivance that has the school’s yea/nay letter arriving the day of the accident, although after it occurs, of course. You see, the roads aren’t too bad for a family jaunt, but they are bad enough to delay the mail. Other contrived conveniences like this occur throughout.
The direction is no better than the script. Cutler, whose area of expertise up to this point has been documentaries, is simply not up to the task of creating the necessary fictional structure and flow to make the film work. Even if you blame the script for the flaws of the family, lovers, and relationships, Cutler is fully responsible for the film’s two key components: the car crash and the portrayal of Mia’s out-of-body existence.
The execution of the car accident is simply dreadful. This is a PG-13 film, and while that doesn’t mean it needs the maximum bloodshed allowed in a PG-13 film, it shouldn’t look like a driver’s ed safety film, either. Nothing about the incident – and especially its aftermath – is remotely believable.
As for Mia’s spirit-self, she can’t pass through solid objects like doors, and if that’s “the rule” then that’s okay. She never opens her own doors (although she seems to be able to touch solid objects), but Cutler doesn’t take the opportunity to portray her as subtle, either. She never slips through an open door; she dashes at opportunities like a track star being encouraged by her coach. It’s exhausting to watch.
Cutler’s lumbering direction is not helped by his technicians, either. Editor Keith Henderson finds moments in almost every scene to introduce an awkward cut or a clumsy shot selection. Cinematography from John de Borman is far too soft throughout, which actually causes the occasional moment of confusion as to when the story is in flashback versus present time. Even composer Heitor Pereira‘s score fails to capture the right mood at the right time.
All that remains is the acting, which is mostly lifeless. The weak script is no help, but beyond that, there is no chemistry between the parents, the kids, the parents and the kids, or Mia and Adam. Liana Liberato is okay as Kim, Mia’s best friend (but in a limited capacity). As for Moretz, the camera loves her (especially with all of those soft filters), and she has her moments with what she has to work with, but when history writes her tale, this will be a minor, if not unmentioned, entry.
If I Stay is loaded with amateur flaws, and it isn’t a film so much as it is a theatrical release of a made-for-TV After School Special. And even then, there isn’t anything special about it.