R. J. Cutler, perhaps best known as a documentarian ("The September Issue", "The War Room"), dips his toe into the fiction film waters with "If I Stay", based on a very popular YA book.
Mia, a high school cello player, is not your average teenager. She doesn't really like rock music which is surprising because her dad, Denny (Joshua Leonard, "The Blair Witch Project", many TV guest appearances) was in a popular, well-known, on-the-rise rock band, and her mom, Kat (Mireille Enos, TV's "The Killing") took her to most of his performances. When Mia’s younger brother is born, dad quits the band and becomes an English teacher. Mia is interested in Adam (Jamie Blackley, Woody Allen's next new film, "Snow White and the Huntsmen"), but doesn't believe she has a chance because he has his own band, and everyone knows who he is. But Adam is very interested in her and they start dating. Kat and Denny are the type of parents who encourage their daughter - who does everything right, gets good grades, studies, never breaks rules - to date a musician and stay out later than her curfew. The relationship starts off great, but as their goals threaten to pull them apart, they begin to have problems. One day, Portland is hit with snow and the schools are closed, so Kat and Denny decide to take Mia and her younger brother Teddy on a trip to see their grandparents in the country.
"If I Stay" is an emotional story following Mia and Adam through their slightly tumultuous relationship but the method of telling the tale is slightly awkward and mars the overall feeling of the film.
I haven't read the book, so I don't know if it uses the same narrative framing. But Cutler starts the film with the promise of the carefree drive through the country.
I don't think I am really giving anything away, as the trailer pretty much spells out what happens, but I feel better about providing some warning.
The carefree drive through the country, on a wintry, snowy day, ends in an accident and Mia spends most of this timeline in a coma, her inner self watching the family and Adam visit her bedside, trying to help her recover from the tragedy. During this time, she remembers other points in her life, allowing us to watch key moments in her relationship with Adam through flashbacks.
This decision and the fact the trailer pretty much spells Mia’s journey out for us in advance rob the film of some emotional moments. As soon as the drive starts, you know what the outcome will be and it doesn't pack the wallop it might have had as a surprise to the viewer.
The story of Mia and Adam also seems a little misplaced. Adam is being torn away from Mia because his band is successful and on the rise. The kid is supposed to be 17 or 18. Isn't that a little young for a kid to be traveling all over, for nights on end, in a van with a bunch of his buddies? Mia also has a similar situation: will she or won't she be accepted to attend Julliard? If she decides to go, what will happen to her relationship with Adam?
The drive through the country begins with laughs at the family home. The flashbacks here mirror this type of attitude - the beginning of their relationship when everything is new and exciting and full of promise. As soon as the accident happens, the tone of the flashbacks also change to reflect how Mia and Adam are growing.
Chloe Grace Moretz does a good job of portraying Mia's relationship with Adam. She is less convincing when real-life threatens to pull them apart. In both cases, the characters seem too young to be experiencing such a life-changing moment in their lives. It is more believable because Mia is simply contemplating whether to move away and go to college, but because her boyfriend, who is one year older, is torn away from the relationship because of his band's increasing popularity, she seems too young by association to be dealing with this type of thing. You half expect Keira Knightley and Adam Levine to be playing these roles...
The best part of the film is in the performances of Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard. Mia's parents are pretty cool. They were funny and cool when she was a baby, they are funny and cool now that she is a teen. They hold weekly 'orphan' potlucks and have all of their friends gather on the deck of their ramshackle Portland home, getting together, laughing, sharing. When Mia meets Adam, they fully embrace him and he becomes a part of the family. In fact, they seem more surprised that she finally has a boyfriend and want to make sure he sticks around. When the snow day occurs, mom doesn't think twice about faking a sickness, so she can join her husband (who is a teacher) and two kids for their drive to visit the grandparents. And they both seem pretty cool because Denny gave up his dream to be a rock musician and became an English teacher to support his new dream of having a family.
Jamie Blackley plays and he is less interesting. He doesn’t quite have the charisma to pull off the brooding teen male, like Robert Pattinson or Theo James. And his acting seems to be just highs and lows, nothing in between. When he and Mia fight, he seems to only shout his dialogue and in the quieter moments, he only seems to mumble. In the normal moments, he can’t seem to find a way to make himself seem natural.
Stacy Keach plays Grandpa. He has a few nice moments, low-key moments that help to sell the gravitas of the situation for Mia.
Aisha Hinds (TV’s “Under the Dome”, “Detroit 1-8-7”, “True Blood”) plays Nurse Ramirez. She has a few nice scenes showing her encouraging Mia to come back, to wake up from the coma.
"If I Stay" has a lot going for it; very good acting, passionate romance between the teen leads, overly dramatic narrative. The narrative structure hampers the overall film making it less interesting and effective. Which is a shame because "Stay" has all the elements of a surefire success and should be tapping into the Teen Angst market popular at the multiplex right now.