I like to cry at movies. But it’s been a long, long time since Pan’s Labyrinth and, before that, Enemies: a Love Story had me weeping up a storm. Cynical tear-jerkers have always been around; yet there have always been gifted writer-directors like Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and James L. Brooks able to rearrange the formula as if were just so much turning of a Rubik’s Cube. The old staple of the strong, independent woman challenged on the very cusp of middle age as looks fade and the grim reaper comes-a-knockin’ were a scene-chewing staple over the American century for the likes of Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, Sally Field and Meryl Streep.
Something happened, though. I’m not even sure I can even put my finger on it. Cell phones, $16 seats, $8 popcorn, the ‘fashion’ for customers to talk back at the movies, Breaking Bad. Luring Boomers and X-ers into movie theaters these days is difficult. But Hollywood always adjusts. There’s little doubt that If I Stay will be just as big a hit as the $280m boffo adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.
If I Stay is based on a breathless burby novel by Gayle Forman. Plot-wise, Forman broadsides the audience with an automobile accident out of a Currier & Ives print. An idyllic snowy white world is shattered dreams as the heroine, Mia (Chloé Grace Moretz), her mother (Mireille Enos), her dad (Joshua Leonard), and her younger brother (Jakob Davies) are all injured.
The film’s screenplay is a gem. I am no fan of Ms. Forman, but the job of work put in by Shauna Cross is often taut, tight and witty. Cross knows how to carefully dole out equal portions of humor, family dynamics and gooey romance. The director, R.J. Cutler, has a light touch and does well to counteract spoonfuls of morbidity by deftly shooting nature as a sort of disinterested postcard frame. Throughout it all, Mia hovers in her coma-induced limbo, her spiritual persona wandering, barefoot and lost in mopedom. Plot-wise, as explained by a kind of single Greek chorus of a nurse (Aisha Hinds), who tells us that it is up to Mia as to whether she chooses a difficult life or a far simpler death. Meanwhile flashbacks play ping-pong with her current reality in a gruesome kind of way.
Then there’s Adam (Jamie Blackley), a grungish rock ’n’ roller who sneers Cobainishly, although a long look makes it crystal clear that his spine is made from the center post of a white picket fence. One year older in high school might as well be a thousand, the gossips says. He’s supposed to be a bad boy, but he’s just too damned good to be bad, blessed somehow with musical good taste and a vague sort of lust as he watches her practice her Bach. Indeed, he begrudgingly sort of accepts her need to get out of his clutches to enroll at Julliard. After all, he tours with his band.
If I Stay’s music, Bach’s Cello Suite #1, Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata in B minor and her Juilliard audition piece, Camille Saint-Saëns’s superb Cello Concerto in A minor, all work remarkably well to custom sandpaper the film’s mood.
Moretz, whose previous best work before this was a comedy turn on TV’s 30 Rock opposite that aging scenery chewer, Alec Baldwin, has a stoicism about her that conveys puzzlement rather more than passion. Pretty dreadful in the recent Carrie remake, she has a lot more room to convey the confusion of adolescence here. I was less enamored of the rest of the cast, though. Much is made of Mia’s war of good taste over ’classicism’ with both her ex-punk rocker parents and her supposed fellow punker boyfriend Adam. All of it’s pretty blah and flat, though, because the band Adam leads comes off more as being Arctic Monkeys power pop wannabes rather than anything punk rockish.
Her coma—which highlights both the love-work and art-commerce questions and is pretty deep for a so-called teen novel—is one dilemma I might not want to awaken from, either. The central dramatic problem in If I Stay is supposed to be Mia’s decision whether to quit the world or stick with it, but it is really the world that faces her test.