All words: Rachel Kruzius
The teen romance tearjerker If I Stay operates on a premise that takes equal parts from A Christmas Story and the Nicholas Sparks oeuvre. Cello-playing high school student Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) must decide whether to keep living or go towards the light after her family dies in a car wreck.
The film, based on a novel by Gayle Forman, begins with a snowy morning, as the Hall family gets ready for the day. Mia’s parents, Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), are vets of the Portland punk scene, equal parts proud of and befuddled by their straight-laced classical-loving daughter. The family dynamic doesn’t seem like an attempt to be quirky because their banter feels organic.
Savvy moviegoers know to be wary of winding car rides accompanied by orchestral strings that crescendo. The Hall family’s drive fulfills these expectations. After the crash, Mia finds that she is separated from her body, Ebenezer Scrooge-style. She accompanies herself in an ambulance to the hospital.
Mia’s consciousness spends the day in a gauzy outfit, watching her family’s friends shuffle into the hospital to learn the bad news. She watches the one black person in the entire movie, a nurse in a savior role, tell her, “You control this whole thing – whether you live or die.”
The film employs flashbacks so Mia can evaluate her options. Most of them revolve around Adam (Jamie Blackley), a floppy-haired rocker, as the two embark on a relationship that has ended by the time of the car crash. Theirs is a combination of opposites often seen in the romance genre. If Mia is the staid, serious one, Adam is the badass, fronting a band and climbing up balconies.
Luckily, director R.J. Cutler takes their love seriously. Unlike other romances with leads that don’t really make sense together beyond their gorgeous looks, it’s clear that Mia and Adam share a deep passion for music. Plus, Moretz and Blackley have real chemistry. Even when their relationship takes a turn for the worse, the two still share their intense connection, which makes it harder to acknowledge that it’s now accompanied by lots of fighting.
In one great moment, Mia tells Adam about her audition for Julliard (it’s always Julliard), which would take her across the country. Blackley’s face perfectly conveys the mixture of pride and sadness when he learns that she aced it.
The film is also aware of the cutesy, weird, totally unrealistic things that couples say to each other in movies and pokes a little fun. In a moment of physical intimacy, Adam tells Mia to “think about it like we’re playing music together.” She responds, in a phrase that could apply to many romantic rejoinders, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
If I Stay lingers on the moment following the big event – after the kiss, after the performance – when people let their guard down. This technique helps us get to know bit players in the film, so the supporting players feel like fully realized people we just don’t know yet (except for that nurse, who fulfills the Morgan Freeman trope).
The movie also nails the soundtrack, which is important when every character puts such a premium on music.
Juxtaposing this story of young love with a literal life-or-death decision highlights how often the former feels like the latter. While there are moments in the movie specifically designed to tickle your tear ducts, If I Stay does solid character work that earns the sobs you will definitely hear erupting in the theater.