“Here’s the secret, baby: if you live, if you die, it’s all up to you,” a kindly nurse whispers to a broken, comatose body. And it is – it really is! – all up to her. Aside from its staggering myriad of issues, R.J. Cutler’s “If I Stay” could be condemned for doling out just really terrible medical advice. Eventually, though, even a trained medical professional that tells nearly dead kids that they can live if they just fight hard enough, is the least of the film’s worries.
Based on Gayle Froman’s beloved and bestselling YA novel of the same name, “If I Stay” centers on high schooler Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), as she struggles to decide, yup, if she should stay (and if it’s possible to talk yourself out of a coma). The film zips between time frames with ease, telling Mia’s story through a mixture assorted flashbacks, present events and comatose musings. It’s not nearly as hard to understand as it may sound.
When we first meet Mia, a talented cellist who feels out of place with her literally hard-rocking family (her parents are both absurdly, almost over-the-top hip, and even her younger brother favors Iggy Pop over The Wiggles), she’s apparently still struggling to get over her first love, a dude who jumped ship months ago. Huffy and sad over breakfast, concerned about an acceptance letter that’s supposed to be coming from Julliard that morning, Mia’s mood lifts when a snow day is declared, freeing up all the Halls (including Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos, who are both excellent in their “cool parents, not regular parents” parts) to go have some fun together. That fun will, of course, end in tragedy.
First, though, it’s flashback time, as we watch the story of Mia and ex-boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) unfold, zinging us back in the past for a little catch-up. Adam is the kind of guy who trades on his good looks and musical proficiency (everyone in the film is a talented musician, except for Mia’s best friend, who instead needs to slum at being a talented photographer), because there’s zero chance that any guy without looks or talent could get away with such ham-handed lines as “I see you” or showing up outside some girl’s house and crawling up her balcony. Adam is a straight up weirdo, but he’s got dreamy hair and a hot band, and Mia is awkward and weird and strange (despite Julliard-caliber talent, an awesome best pal, a wonderful family, and a wardrobe befitting a J. Crew model), how could she resist him? As the dumb-teens-in-love story plays out in the past, the present is dedicated to a terrible car crash that destroys the Halls and leaves Mia in a coma. (If nothing else, Adam’s big doe eyes not only keep Mia hot for him, but also allow the audience to roar with laughter at scenes that would otherwise scan as mildly terrifying.)
Finally, she’s in a coma. It took long enough.
Despite all the backstory – and man, does the backstory just keep coming, even after the accident – the real heart of “If I Stay” involves Mia deciding if she should live or die. Again, it’s all up to her. The coma. Coming out of the coma. That’s up to her. Someone fire this nurse.
Perhaps the secret to enjoying “If I Stay” involves getting into the age-specific mindset of its main characters. Mia and Adam are believable as teens, particularly because they exhibit the essential joy and main problem of only being around for 15 or so years: they’re wildly shortsighted about the future. As the duo vacillate between vowing to love each other forever, they’re also consistently waylaid by the possibility that Mia may move across the country for school. “My whole life is here!” Mia rants idiotically to her family, unable to fathom that the life she knows at age 16 is not the life she will have forever. Someone’s about to get a terrible wake up call.
The crux of the film is Mia and Adam’s relationship, a decision that may read as romantic and dreamy on paper, but one that scans as deranged and weirdly insulting on the screen. As Mia’s still-living family and friends (including Liana Liberato as best pal Kim, who is just wonderful) weep over her battered body and her immediate relatives are routinely wheeled out, bloody and ruined and dead, she can only think of her relationship with Adam. At least, that’s what it looks like, because as the film ping-pongs back and forth between Coma Mia and Pre-Coma Mia, the narrative is entirely dedicated to telling the teens’ love story. Sure, her parents and Teddy and Kim and her grandparents are peripheral characters, but everything is about Adam.
Which is why it’s so strange that the film’s most genuinely emotional scenes – a car ride with her grandpa, a sobbing Stacy Keach, a heartbroken Liberato, a recording session that features all of the Halls – involve everyone but Adam. At a certain point, Adam and Mia’s relationship seems entirely foolish. Teen lust. High school sweethearts. First love. In short, not something worth staying for. Of course, it’s what Mia stays for. Of course.
Moretz, so excellent in earlier films like “Let Me In” and “(500) Days of Summer” is woozy and out of it here, doling out line readings that fall like bricks and emotional beats she seems too dazed to actually hit. Even the love story doesn’t work, because Moretz and Blackley exhibit zero romantic chemistry, and it’s never exactly clear why the pair love each other so much. Things are better when the Halls are together, and Moretz seems much more at ease when working alongside Liberato, Leonard and Enos, but those scenes come few and far between.
Still, “If I Stay” knows what to do to wring the tears out of its audience – it’s called “sobbing Stacy Keach,” for any future filmmakers looking for the secret – and its rare earned emotional high points certainly sting (can you possibly guess what happens to Mia’s baby brother? go on, guess!). But while Mia may think that Adam is worth staying for, the romance is the first thing that will lead audiences howling out of the theater. Live for something else, kid.