Advertising slogans shouldn’t really affect one’s critical judgment of a film. But full disclosure, seeing a brief online ad for If I Stay a couple of weeks ago asking if we were “ready for all the #feels” might have put me in the wrong mind-set for the movie. Based on Gayle Forman’s best-selling novel, If I Stay follows a young, promising teenage cellist, her whole life ahead of her, who winds up comatose after a horrific car accident. While Mia’s (Chloe Grace Moretz) body lies lifeless on a bed, a ghostly version of her haunts the corridors of the hospital, listens in on her loved ones, and reminisces about her life. On the surface, it seems perfect for our “feels”-obsessed culture — in which feelings are commodified and presented to us as bite-size, viral fixes, instead of things that come organically from within. “Come see a near-death teenager movie and get sad,” it seems to say, the way an Upworthy headline might tell me what I need to feel about something before I even know what the hell it is.
But here’s the thing: For much of its running time, If I Stay isn’t that movie. Until it is. And even then, it sort of isn’t. Allow me to explain.
Unfolding (at least at first) with surprising patience and admirable restraint, R.J. Cutler’s film initially privileges character instead of melodrama. As Mia narrates her short life to us, we see her loving interactions with her family, her discovery of the cello, her first meeting with her boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley). He’s a high-school rocker whose success is preordained (we already saw in the film’s framing device that his band will soon be opening for the Shins), and he loves her cello playing, even though he knows nothing about classical music. She, on the other hand, admires his sense of purpose and confidence. (“He already knew who he was. Me, not so much.”)
They make for an interesting contrast in emotional temperatures, these two kids. Adam thrives on the anger and chaos of punk and rock – even though the music he plays is insufferably bland and anonymous – while Mia grooves on the order, structure, and solitude of the cello. Maybe it’s because Mia’s parents are also rockers: Dad (Joshua Leonard) gave up his band Nasty Business to become a teacher after their second child, while Mom (Mireille Enos) is a former riot grrrl turned travel agent. In Adam, she sees someone who brings together her parents’ joie de vivre with her own romantic melancholy.
That’s the good news. Throughout its first half, If I Stay proceeds elegantly, deliberately, without trying to shamelessly jerk our tears. But within these moments also lie the seeds of the film’s downfall, because there’s also a curiously sterile quality to the film’s exchanges. Adam may be a high-school rocker, but he’s also always understanding, never neglectful. What conflict the story does offer up — Mia applies to Juilliard, thus throwing their future into jeopardy, since Adam wants to stay on the West Coast — never feels like a real challenge to their relationship. Indeed, Adam’s frustration proves how much he loves her.
We also sense a similar kind of perfection in Mia’s parents. They’re fun and funny and super chill about Mia dating cool rocker boys and hanging out all night with them; at one point, as Mia says good night to Adam at her door, the parents yell out from inside that she should stay out with him. Those are great parents to have, sure, but it starts to get insufferable after a while. Even her younger brother quotes Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop. Everybody is absolutely fucking perfect in this movie.
[Spoilers now follow for If I Stay]
One could argue that they have to be perfect, because once Mia’s family’s car plows into an oncoming vehicle with everybody inside it, her ghostly consciousness has to take account of all that she has lost. For If I Stay eventually settles on Mia’s trying to decide whether she should let herself die, after a stray whisper from a hospital worker in her comatose ear suggests that she has the power to let go or to stay. On the one hand, she’s lost so much. On the other hand, she’s got her cool rocker-bro boyfriend and Juilliard ahead of her. (Yeah, she got into Juilliard.) As her spirit-self sprints back and forth through the corridors and rooms of the hospital, narrating her predicament, the film starts to lose the goodwill created by its earlier scenes and starts to feel just plain silly, its approach to loss ruthlessly mathematical.
If I Stay wants to show us that Mia had so much promise and happiness in her life. But that’s not a movie, that’s a funeral oration. More often than not, stories and characters we’re invested in come from messier places; it’s the rough edges of our lives that make us more interesting and human. You keep wanting somebody to act like a jerk in this movie. You want these people to have real challenges and messiness. But their lives don’t quite feel lived in; they feel exemplary. And thus, Mia’s predicament never really pops for us. There’s a lot to admire in If I Stay, but in the end, don’t be surprised if you #feel very little.