It’s a genuine shock to see Chloë Grace Moretz in a movie where she doesn’t kill anybody. And certainly the change of pace must have been part of the reason the star of “Let Me In,” “Kick-Ass” and the recent “Carrie” remake opted to play Mia, a talented and sensitive teenage cellist whose promising life is shattered by a tragic car accident.
The thing is, the predominantly young and female audience likely to turn out to see “If I Stay” (and you can expect them to turn out in droves) hasn’t seen those movies, and will likely accept Moretz in the role at face value. Whether or not they’ll as readily accept the shameless emotional manipulation and manufactured suspense they’ll be subjected to at every turn is another question.
Based on a novel by Gayle Forman, most of the movie follows an out of body experience as Mia witnesses medical personnel trying to save her life, interspersed with extensive flashbacks of the year and a half leading up to this moment. Documentary director R.J. Cutler, making his feature directorial debut, has the good sense not to retread “Ghost” here. Mia is not seen walking through walls, and there are few special effects in the movie.
Moretz is as believable as can be expected, given the cardboard characterizations and stock Hollywood dialogue in the screenplay by Shauna Cross. As in Cross’s earlier (and better) screenplay “Whip It,” which was based on her own novel, her adolescent heroine falls for an aspiring rocker, although that character, played here by Jamie Blackley (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) is far more sympathetic.
But here it isn’t the stresses and temptations of a rock star boyfriend on the road that provides the biggest crisis for the heroine. It’s whether she should decide to live or die after the car accident that happens very early in the movie. A nurse whispers to the comatose Mia that no matter what the doctors do, it’s up to her to decide whether to go on living or die.
Which makes it a bit of a dilemma whether to mention that Mia narrates the movie.
As crippling as the shallow characterizations and lame dialogue are, they are actually less a problem than “If I Stay’s” reliance on voice-over narration and extensive flashbacks, two inherently uncinematic devices that demonstrate nothing so much as a failure of imagination. It is the nature of flashbacks to interrupt a movie’s momentum, and that’s very much a problem here, particularly in later scenes when the audience may well feel that the point’s been made and could we just get on with it. The movie is only an hour and forty-six minutes long but feels longer. Some of the flashbacks are redundant, and the movie is padded with musical numbers by the protagonists.
“If I Stay” benefits significantly from John de Borman’s handsome photography, much of it shot on moody Vancouver locations. Mireille Enos (AMC’s “The Killing”) and Joshua Leonard (HBO’s “True Detective”) are earnest as Mia’s former punk rocker parents. Stacy Keach, as Mia’s grandfather, provides the only effective emotional content in the movie.
Rated PG-13 for mild language, implied teenage sexual activity and underage drinking, "If I Stay" is currently playing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Bow Tie Movieland in Schenectady, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, The Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Regal Cinems East Greenbush 8 and The Rotterdam Square Cinema,