The only thing that If I Stay has going for it is that Chloë Grace Moretz is in it.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
If I Stay gets off to a really bad start by playing like every bad Young Adult adaptation ever made. Overly portentous narration by the lead character, so much soft focus that it looks like every camera lens has been laced with nine coats of Vaseline, enough lens flares to wonder whether JJ Abrams is involved in production, irritatingly perfect characters swapping “witty” lines that sound like rejects from a wannabe Aaron Sorkin script, soft indie rock/indie folk on the soundtrack because that’s the one part of Garden State that people remember a decade later… However, whilst first impressions mean a lot, they don’t mean everything. You can have a bad, off-putting opening and still come through with the goods. Example: The Fault In Our Stars, which If I Stay will be negatively compared to a lot during this review so be prepared, had a really off-putting opening that gave me the strong impression that the next two hours were going to be pure hell to sit through, only to end up turning it around and sending me home in floods of tears.
However, that film managed to dig through the melodrama and find the reality of the situation, the heart. Fault In Our Stars managed to make its cast, although they were still rather perfect in all honesty, feel human, feel real and managed to do the same to its proceedings. It is an exceedingly manipulative film but it manages to disguise that manipulation through strong character work, excellent performances from everyone and enough self-awareness to know just when to pull back (mostly, that Anne Frank house scene in particular will forever be a black mark against the film for me). If I Stay has none of those things. Its characters remain irritatingly perfect and fake the whole time, nobody except Chloë Grace Moretz is trying, and there are several points where I was practically drowning in the open and ham-fisted manipulation. If The Fault In Our Stars is a really smart and clever person sat across from you breaking you down mentally by knowing exactly what to say when in order to send you into floods of tears, If I Stay is like a brick sh*thouse repeatedly punching you in the kidneys and screaming at you to start crying, dammit!
The story that the film would like for you to start crying at, dammit, revolves around Mia Hall (Moretz). She’s a high school senior who has an irritatingly perfect family, is a prodigy at the cello, and is currently waiting to hear back from Juliard about her application. Then, on a snow day, tragedy strikes when the family ends up in a car accident and Mia goes into a coma, during which time she has an out-of-body-experience and has to weigh up whether or not she wants to keep on living or cross over into the afterlife (primarily represented by a blinding white light poorly pasted onto a scene because this is the kind of film we’re dealing with). And wouldn’t you just know it, fate keeps twisting the knife to such an extent that her choice depends on a boy (Jaime Blackley), whose relationship with Mia forms the focus of the flashbacks that make up the film’s structure.
So, as you may have already gathered, it’s a teen weepie, one that even comes with a built-in fan base due to being an adaptation of a YA book. None of this is inherently a problem, I must stress; my cynicism my rise significantly upon hearing these things but I am always more than willing to get invested in proceedings and have a good cry – I cry at least three times throughout every viewing I’ve had of ParaNorman, for example. It becomes a problem when I spend nearly two hours in the company of a group of characters and not once do I see them as actual people, which is the case here. If I Stay’s cast of characters are sickeningly perfect and practically flawless. Maybe it’s supposed to make the tragedy sting that much more, but all it did for me was make me pray for that car accident to travel back through time and knock off everybody sooner. It’s the usual stuff: scenes of stilted actors trading lines that would look low-quality even in a play written by high school drama students, characters blowing up (metaphorically, pretty much everybody is way too bored to bother to display emotion) over petty little misunderstandings, a world where everything is going amazingly for everyone until it suddenly isn’t…
Proceedings don’t feel real, is what I am getting at. Nobody involved feels real, nothing that occurs does anything to mask the fact that this is all being cynically designed to wring tears from you. I kept being held at arm’s length, never able to get invested, despite the fact that the concept of death is one that never fails to immediately kill my mood and bring me to the verge of tears. Not helping matters is the incredibly generic way that proceedings are presented. As previously stated, there’s the extreme amount of soft focus, the lens flares and the licensed soundtrack that played everything but some Bon Iver (there was one point where I was sat thinking that the only act the film hadn’t utilised yet was Mazzy Star… and then, ten seconds later, Mazzy Star came on). But there’s also the over-egged score, the dreary narration that aspires to say something profound and insightful but is more the equivalent of an 11 year-old who read one book of poetry once and decided that they could do that, piece of piss, the lethargic pacing and awkward structure (I feel the film actually loses something by flitting back and forth between pre and post-accident), the uninspired cinematography… I’ve seen all of this stuff before and executed far better, the result here just comes off as completely lifeless (make your own jokes).
Oh, and then there are the times when the film goes so overboard that it’s like being stuck on the Titanic as it splits in half whilst sinking. There’s a bit at the halfway point (that’s been spoilt in the trailers, natch) that should be the film’s big emotional shanking, except that the scene instead turns into self-parody by performing all of the following: soft focus, lens flares, that bit where the diegetic sound cuts out, old memories shot in grainy Super 8 and which jump around the screen like the film has been worn to the bone, practically ordering the otherwise great Chloë Grace Moretz to overact as much as she possibly can, frequent cuts to that stupid white light effect, and the score turns into the kind of overegged melodramatic ridiculous theatricality that you can accurately (and I am not exaggerating here, this is what it sounded like) recreate by flinging a symphony orchestra and a withered old grand piano down five flights of stairs, recording the result and then syncing up the resultant mess so that the resultant cacophony is all playing at the same time as one another. If you think that that description of the score was overblown, you haven’t experienced this scene. The film tries way too hard and the result just had me on the verge of laughter, especially when they do it all again two-thirds in!
The one thing that If I Stay really has going for it is the fact that Chloë Grace Moretz has turned up as the lead role and, as I’m sure we’re all know by now, Chloë Grace Moretz does not half-ass a performance. She spends the film’s entire runtime trying desperately to find the humanity in Mia, trying to break through the script’s “perfect girl in every single way” characterisation, and she does frequently succeed. Some of the film’s clunkier “people do not talk that way” lines flow convincingly when delivered by her (there’s a bit in a coffee shop that really threw into sharp relief just how much better she is at this than the rest of her cast-mates), and she’s on a never-ending mission to sell the romance with Adam, the boy I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, on-screen romances and relationships are a two-way street and her efforts at propping up the film end up mostly for naught as nobody else is trying to root out the character depth and humanity the script lacks, or just not trying period. Least of all Jaime Blackley as Adam, who always comes off as less “cool, mysterious dreamboat” and more “bored, flat paycheque-seeker” and his complete lack of interest stifles any potential chemistry between him and Moretz. If there’s anyone to place the primary blame on for the wasting of Moretz’s efforts, it’s him; he is dreadful here.
All this being said, I don’t hate If I Stay. It doesn’t work, it’s way too clichéd and blatantly manipulative to get me fully invested in proceedings, and it’s too cynically calculated in its manipulations, but I don’t hate it. I might find it generic, but it is at least competently made and Chloë Grace Moretz shows up to act (which she pretty much always does anyway, but that’s beside the point). The only major issue I have with it, as in it’s the only thing that prompted a full-on change of thought in my brain beyond boredom, is its ending or, rather, the lack of one. It may have worked in the book (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t read it), where such a sudden cut to black can be better conveyed and carry great emotional weight due to well-written prose, but here it just feels like the last fifth of the last reel had been eaten by somebody at some point. I felt tempted to ask out loud, “Err, don’t you still have another 10 minutes of story to tell, Movie?” but then I realised that that would have meant being indifferently bored for another 10 minutes if it were there, so I kept schtum.
I should probably also mention that in my screening, of which there were about 20 people, I was the only one who wasn’t openly and loudly sobbing at some point during If I Stay. So, I dunno, maybe I’m just the heartless monster.