This young adult drama could have made an interesting existential exploration of what makes life worth fighting for -- instead, this shallow flick opts for safe and uninspired story choices that literally determine a character's life or death.
Ostensibly "If I Stay" explores the pros and cons of Mia fighting to live versus conceding to her injuries. Can a 17-year-old girl find the will to live after suffering such a wholly catastrophic car crash? While this premise is interesting, "If I Stay" forces its way to an obvious conclusion via some forced and manufactured plot devices that ultimately undermine its core message.
Without revealing any spoilers, Mia quickly realizes her life will simply never be the same after the car wreck, which also involved her parents and younger brother. She realizes if she fights to overcome her injuries, her once normal life as a high school teenage girl has been altered forever. At any point, Mia could simply give up and slip away -- "If I Stay" is theoretically about her search for reasons to live and emotionally survive the car accident.
However, this flat film proposes that a gifted cellist should strongly consider life as long as she has a chance to get into Julliard and if her estranged boyfriend comes back for her as the two main reasons she should "live to love." This odd film spends a lot of time establishing how important getting into the prestigious arts school is to Mia, as is her on-again, off-again relationship with her rebellious aspiring rock star boyfriend. As if the totality of a life worth living could be distilled to what school or job you might get or if your first love comes back to you. Basing the dramatic stakes on such flimsy conditions hurts "If I Stay."
Grace Moretz leads an otherwise solid cast, with standout performances from "The Killing" star Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project") as Mia's parents. The cool former punk rockers played by Enos and Leonard are clearly the "cool" parents anyone would want at their dinner table. Their absolute charm doesn't merely make them likable - it also raises the stakes as their fates are initially unknown after the car wreck. The flashbacks do a nice job of painting a portrait of two doting and wonderful parents whose love of life contrasts the grimmer aspects of this film. But the most emotionally powerful scene is absolutely commanded by veteran actor Stacy Keach, who plays Mia's grandfather. His scene is the purest summation of what "If I Stay" should have been.
"If I Stay" is a well assembled story - and all the credit has to go to editor Keith Henderson. The film's structure is based around Mia's car crash and the aftermath, and is inter cut with flashbacks from her childhood memories. Despite some pretty erratic time jumps, it's always easy to figure out where in the timeline each scene takes place. This is a fine example of how great editing fosters storytelling.
Because this film is fundamentally told from the POV of a comatose girl's out-of-body experience, this story is restricted by the logic that Mia can't be everywhere, even in her non-physical presence. This results in one of the major flaws of "If I Stay": plot turns via exposition. And pretty cold lines of dialogue. Mia learns the fate of her family members via conversations between doctors and her family. Several fundamentally important plot turns occur off screen, and this film simply reveals Mia's reactions. This is definitively weaker storytelling than allowing the protagonist to see/witness events happen versus simply hearing about them.
For a film that, by its own admission, is designed to push audience to get "the feels," this melodrama isn't as offensively manipulative as "The Fault in Our Stars" ... but it's still very leading. In fact, anyone who reads the premise probably can figure out exactly how the plot plays out. Aside from a couple of reveals about Mia's parents, this movie is pretty predictable and its "twists" are obvious.
Despite some fine storytelling and solid supporting actor performances, this film is ultimately sabotaged by its borderline insulting argument that the price of life depends on which school you get into and who you hold hands with.
Final verdict: While not as grossly emotionally manipulative as other young adult dramas, this melodramatic story has some genuinely moving moments - but its overall story and message are too thin to be taken too seriously.
"If I Stay" opens in theaters nationwide Aug. 22 and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material.