Moving Comatose Conundrum
There is a lot of potentially sappy material in “If I Stay” through which the film must navigate carefully in order to avoid slipping into melodrama. Young adult passion, love-at-first-sight attraction, family tragedy, out-of-body experiences, and the classic killer of romance we call “the long-distance relationship.” But director R.J. Cutler’s adaptation, based on the novel by Gayle Forman, traverses these potential minefields with precision and clarity while offering something no book is able to match: terrific music.
Among the biggest factors behind the success of “If I Stay” are the performances of its leads. Chloe Grace Moretz (“Hugo” and “Let Me In”) who plays Mia, a cello-playing, shy high school senior, and Jamie Blackley as Adam, the popular, handsome rocker who falls for her. Mia feels like the odd one in her family, especially since her mom and dad (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) are former rockers themselves. They are seemingly the coolest parents ever and encourage their music nerd daughter to lighten up, while Adam’s dysfunctional past leads him to relationship issues of his own.
Mia’s dilemma is the central driving force behind “If I Stay.” It involves whether, after a serious car accident, she should fight to live or move toward the light of the afterlife that beckons. Supernatural contrivances aside, the film earns its unabashedly tear-jerking inclinations by taking its time to develop Mia and Adam’s relationship and by using flashbacks that don’t overstay their welcome.
One particular moment proves “If I Stay’s” merit as Stacy Keach offers a powerful, scene-stealing bit of grandfatherly advice that arrives with sincerity and authenticity.
As more of the story is revealed, and Mia’s comatose conundrum becomes more evident, Cutler never lets the screenplay (adapted by Shauna Cross) spin into maudlin contrivance even as its tropes feel well worn, even old-fashioned.
Those familiar with the book seem split on “If I Stay’s” adaptation, so perhaps those unfamiliar to the novel have an advantage. No doubt the book lovers will check it out, but for novices, especially those willing to set aside their cynicism, “If I Stay” is a tenderhearted effort that restores some faith in the young adult romance genre.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material.