1. Movies about pretty teenagers dying are so hot right now, and If I Stay is no The Fault In Our Stars. The latter is sardonic and more raw, and about what it’s like to grow up in the shadow of death. The former is gauzy and a touch supernatural, with heroine Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) spending most of the movie’s runtime wandering around a hospital as a Coma Ghost after a terrible car crash that claims her family members’ lives, trying to determine if, per the title, she should pick life or go into the light. The latter is about a girl who’s living with cancer, and the former is about a girl whose biggest stressor, until the accident, was being caught between studying cello at Juilliard or staying in Portland with her dreamy, rock star boyfriend Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley).
2. But of course, If I Stay is an effort to capitalize on the same audience as TFIOS, even if they diverge in their approaches to extracting tears. If I Stay is also adapted from a best-selling YA novel, this one by Gayle Forman, and if it isn’t technically “sick-lit,” it does aim for the same weepy sweet spot of young people having to wrestle with mortality before they’ve had much of a chance to live. It, too, is built around a swoony romance between Adam, the slightly older cool kid, who sweetly but persistently woos Mia after falling for her cello playing. The movie, which was written by Shauna Cross (Whip It) and directed by R.J. Cutler (The September Issue), doesn’t come packing an equivalent to “‘OK?’ ‘OK’” — but that’s not for lack of effort.
3. If I Stay’s romance is shaped by a particular kind of wish fulfillment — its dilemmas are all external, because Adam Wilde (how could he not be a musician with that name?), like Augustus Waters, is basically all in from the moment he first sees our heroine. He pursues Mia, pushing past her initial reluctance, which, in this case, isn’t grounded in anything in particular — she’s just a bit of a drip. He’s idealized — he’s beautiful on stage, he soothes away her insecurities, he isn’t fazed when she pretends to have a curfew in order to avoid going to a party with him. That is, until it looks like she’s going to leave him to pursue her dreams on the other side of the country and he finally shows some signs of being an imperfect human, a turn to dickishness the movie tries to play off as his feeling betrayed over her breaking a promise. It’s a soft-focus take on an issue plenty of teenagers face when it comes to attending college… except rather than wrestle with it, If I Stay takes a wild turn into a life-or-death scenario.
4. Mia’s mom and dad, unexpectedly, turn out to be the most charming part of the movie — played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard, they’re former rockers turned hip parents who are bemused but delighted to have given birth to a daughter with a genuine love and talent for the cello and classical music. They’re thrilled with Adam, who, in some ways, has more in common with them than with their daughter — he even knows her dad’s old band — and gently push the pair together. There’s a Family Ties element to their relationship with Mia, who’s more conservative than they are, though it all gets funneled into Mia’s constant feelings of self-doubt.
5. And why is Mia so plagued with doubts? She’s insecure about Adam liking her, though he makes his feelings blatantly clear — she worries that her hair (long and loosely curled, even when she’s comatose) and her makeup (always impeccable) won’t please him, she doesn’t think she’s good enough at the cello (even though she gets so lost in practicing that she doesn’t notice other people leaving the room), and she frets about fitting in with her family (though they do nothing but support her). Everyone’s dealt with insecurity, and it’s an absolutely relatable feeling, but it’s basically Mia’s only personality trait — something she has in common with an unfortunate subgroup of YA protagonists who tend to be defined by a blurry lack of qualities rather than any definition. Moretz is an uncommonly savvy young actress, and she’s actually too much for the role of Mia sometimes, injecting more vividness into the passive character than seems to be in the source material, and making the movie’s melodramatic elements more jarring. Her strengths are in cutting through the cutesiness and artificiality of stereotypes — so that when Mia and Adam spend the night together for the first time and she talks dirty to him in music terminology (pizzicato!), it’s hard not to imagine her snickering between takes.
6. Here’s the thing with If I Stay — it has a real story, in which Mia is forced to decide between Adam or Juilliard (because, of course, he refuses to consider long distance). It’s not an easy decision, but as her mom very sensibly points out, both scenarios have a lot to recommend them, even as they both mean giving something up. Then it throws in this insane larger dilemma in which Mia has to decide whether she wants to fight and live or give up and die — and, just to even things out, her grandfather (Stacy Keach) gives her permission to do the latter, saying he’ll understand if she does. Beyond the ickiness of the implication that surviving trauma is entirely a question of wanting it enough (a message imparted to Mia by the magical emergency room nurse), the fact that it even presents this as a choice that needs to be made speaks to how milquetoast a protagonist Mia is. Throughout the film, she needs to be encouraged in taking the mildest of steps forward — in dating a guy who’s totally in love with her, in auditioning for her dream school. Now she needs to be encouraged to live?
7. More than being a romance, more than being a teen drama, If I Stay turns out to be the ultimate they’ll-miss-me-when-I’m-gone fantasy — a film-length encapsulation of that feeling that wells up when you indulge in spitefully imagining your own funeral or what it’ll be like after you’ve made good on your promises to run away. It’s a walloping, harrowing journey into borrowed self-pity, as Mia lies there in the hospital and her remaining friends and family gather outside, as Adam, of course, runs frantically back to her side, apologizing for being a jerk and promising he’ll follow her to New York (“I’ll do whatever you want!”) if she just opens her eyes. It suggests the ultimate way to win a fight with your significant other is to almost die, and there’s something genuinely upsetting about that — a movie that uses death so callously for melodrama. Everyone loves a good cry, but it shouldn’t leave you feeling dirty afterward.