By Ed Symkus
More Contennt Now
This adaptation of the 2009 young adult weeper of a novel by Gayle Forman about young love in the Pacific Northwest likes to cover moods and emotions. It ranges from sad to happy and from hopeful to tragic. And since it’s got music at its center, it goes from Beethoven to pop-punk.
It’s also got, as does the book, an offbeat take on telling its story. It centers on the budding romance between high school junior and up-and-coming classical cellist Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) and high school senior and rock band frontman Adam (Jamie Blackley). He’s popular and kind of forward; she’s got one close friend and is very conservative. She’s from a tight-knit, loving family; we don’t learn much about his family. They are very much opposites, except for their shared love of very different genres of music. One thing the story sets out to prove is that a love of music can definitely make opposites attract.
But that’s far from the only story being told here. Set around Portland, Oregon, where the winters can be relatively mild, but people don’t know how to drive on even the lightest conditions of snow and ice, it introduces Mia’s family: her hip ex-musician parents, who gave up their old life in order to raise a family, and her cute little brother Danny.
A news flash says that a snow day has been declared, so it’s off for a family drive. That’s a mistake. The roads are slippery. There are those who don’t know how to navigate them. After piling into the car, another driver loses control. There’s a horrific off-camera crash. But Mia jumps up from it right away, starts walking around to see who might be hurt, notices EMTs all over the place – who completely ignore her questions – then sees herself strapped to a stretcher and loaded onto an ambulance.
What’s going on here? Mia and anyone who hasn’t read the book are by now pondering that question. Simply put, it’s “spirit” Mia surrealistically watching everything happening around her, seeing body bags being zipped, coming to realize that some people are in comas, that life as she knew it, moments before, has changed ... forever.
Let the flashbacks begin. They look in on the good times at home, the conflicted times at school (does he like me? does he not like me?), the magical times of finding someone who just might be a soul mate. There’s a lot of flashing back and forth to all sorts of scenarios, and it’s a bit confusing at first, but the film eventually takes on a rhythm that smooths things out. Before long, “If I Stay” evolves into two films in one: the pre-crash story and the post-crash story. Mia is right in the midst of the “pre” part, but standing around, not knowing what to do or how to react in the “post” part, especially upon seeing herself attached to all of those tubes in her hospital bed.
Things get more offbeat due to the film’s constantly moving back and forth in time and its resulting regularly shifting moods. Pretty much everything before the accident is sweet and endearing, except for the friction that comes between Mia and Adam when talk turns to their relationship becoming a long distance one. She has applied to Julliard on the East Coast, and his band is heating up on the West Coast. Still, that’s nothing compared to the air of grimness and helplessness that pervades everything after the accident.
Moretz is getting better with every film she makes, and this time out she’s playing someone with a modicum of normalcy, rather than a foul-mouthed superhero wannabe (“Kick-Ass”) or a blood-sucking vampire (“Let Me In”). Here’s she’s a completely believable, convincingly perplexed teenager in love. British actor Blackley (with no hint of a Brit accent) has had a number of small film parts in recent years, but this is his breakout role, and he plays it with a nicely laid-back confidence. There’s also the always great Stacey Keach as Mia’s grandfather, ever ready to successfully steal a tear-inducing scene or two.
There’s a bit of a dive into melodrama near the end, but it doesn’t go too deep. Besides, the film is too busy conveying what it’s like to be one with the music you’re playing – whether it’s rock or classical – to let anything else get in its way. For those wondering how Moretz got so good at playing the cello, I’ve got to do a little whistle blowing. She took lots of lessons, and she’s holding and fingering and bowing the instrument properly, but it’s the magic of smoothly editing someone else’s body and hands into some scenes at certain points to make her appear so proficient.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
IF I STAY
Written by Shauna Cross; directed by R.J. Cutler
With Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Mireille Enos, Stacey Keach
Movie review: Chloe Grace Moretz has true breakout role in If I Stay’
By Ed Symkus