If I Stay is one of the most watchable bad movies I’ve seen recently. Yes, I know that’s a complement so backhanded it’s a slap in the face, but I mean it. I didn’t hate this movie, even though huge swatches of it are indefensible. If I Stay never approaches so-bad-it’s-good territory. It’s running the other way, starting with really commendable impulses that gradually have more and more bits of laughably trite, clichéd schlock piled on them until that solid foundation is no longer even visible.
That makes it a challenge to talk much about what’s actually working in If I Stay, because it operates more in the realm of potential than actuality. There is potential in characters that, more often than not, have multiple dimensions. Main character Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) may exemplify the High-Achieving Musician type, and also the Girl who Learns She’s Pretty, and also the Family Black Sheep, and also the Love-Struck High Schooler, but at least she’s all of these things. There’s almost no part of her character, or much of anyone else’s, that doesn’t feel overly familiar, but rarely is any one attribute overemphasized to the point of self-parody.
Likewise, most of the plot is a pretty typical high-school romance, but structurally, there are some interesting wrinkles – even if they don’t end up achieving much. I guess given the trailer, what I’m about to say can’t rightly be called a spoiler, but if you want to go into this movie totally fresh, now’s the time to skip down to The Verdict.
The central hook of the plot is that most of it occurs after Mia and her family have been in a brutal car accident, and Mia’s disembodied consciousness watches her own treatment in the ER and ICU (thus the title). Interspersed with this are flashbacks explaining her relationship to recently-ex-boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackly, who looks bizarrely like a young Fred Armisen, but I digress…) and the central conflict – Mia and Adam’s very close relationship is under threat by Mia’s application to Julliard, which would move her away from hometown Portland. The trick here is that the film has license to distill their relationship to a few key points in time without sacrificing a sense of Mia and Adam’s growth as a couple. And because we start knowing they’ve broken up (though not knowing why) and that Mia is anxiously awaiting word from Julliard, the film is able to toy with audience expectation just enough to make an otherwise straightforward plot feel at least a little bit fresh.
That does come at a price, however; namely, that all of the “present” scenes in the hospital feel pretty inconsequential. Check that – they really don’t matter at all. The story being told is about Mia’s transition into adulthood, with thematic emphasis on the great two-edged sword that is choice. And the hospital has nothing to do with any of that. The ephemeral Mia spends the present scenes running back and forth through the hospital, but she’s never able to influence anything. She’s a passive observer whose central choice – whether to fight to live or let go and die – is never a real one. There’s never any sense that she’s able to affect what’s going on in her own body, nor are we shown anything in her past to suggest that Mia wouldn’t want to live. The hospital bits are of another movie entirely, and one that’s woefully incomplete.
It’s at this point that, for clarity’s sake, I have to reiterate that the rest of the movie, the part that actually does matter, still is decidedly not good. As I said at the top, it’s horribly overloaded with cliché. Mia really is the pretty girl with no social confidence who must repeatedly question her own worth and test Adam’s affection for her because, golly, isn’t that just too good to be true. And Adam’s the popular boy who falls for her for no particular reason and is the unattached, slightly older, mannered bad boy whom Mia’s ex-rocker parents immediately take to. Neither Moretz nor Blackly are ever given that much to work with, but it’s Moretz who looks particularly uncomfortable. If Hit Girl (her character in Kick-Ass) is a caricature of her actual persona (and I don’t know that it is, but let’s assume), then Mia is definitely playing out of type. There are occasionally benefits of the awkwardness, such as some cheesy moments between Mia and Adam that nonetheless feel authentically high school, but far more often the dialogue and the narrative are just head-against-the-wall hokey.
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
I wanted to give this movie a two just because it’s at least trying to do right in the places (believable characterization and interesting plot structure) that so many other films fail so spectacularly. The impetus is noticeable, but the film remains a one of five because most of the delivery is simply not good. With a third of the movie essentially a throwaway and an ending that is unintentional emotional slapstick, If I Stay is less the title of the film and more a question posed to the audience.