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Movie review: 'If I Stay' works even when it shouldn't

If I Stay

Rating:
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Based on the popular young adult novel of the same name, If I Stay (in theaters Friday) is a tragic, somewhat depressing romance. Tonally, this is much deeper than your average teen fare and despite thick melodrama and some flirtations with corniness, Chloe Grace Moretz anchors this movie, making it more-than-effective counter-programming to the onslaught of superhero Summer blockbusters.

"If I Stay."
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, 2014. Used with permission.

Moretz plays Mia, a high school-er with an unusual amount of self-confidence. She is quiet and reserved and her life revolves around classical music and playing her cello. She has a sweet younger brother and two hipster parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) that are pretty much the coolest parents of all time. A wanna-be rocker, Adam (Jamie Blackley), sees Mia playing her instrument and is immediately gobsmacked by her uniqueness.

Life couldn't be much better or more full of possibilities for Mia, until that one fateful day. On a seemingly ordinary car ride with her family, a car swerves and hits her family's car head-on. Mia awakens near the wreckage only to see her own body being placed on a stretcher and rushed to the hospital. It's at this point where we basically get two Mias: The comatose one fighting for her life in the hospital, and this spectral version, who is present and and aware of everything going on around her, despite no one else being able to notice her.

The movie at this point unfolds in flashbacks, as we see Mia and her growing relationship with Adam. They fall in love and go to college, where Adam starts a band and Mia does her best to fit in with his rockstar life, despite being a fish-out-of-water. We also see Mia's specter hanging out in the intensive care unit, while the fate of her family and herself is slowly revealed to us.

None of this should work on anything more than a Lifetime movie level, but it all does, quite effectively. At first we aren't sure if her "flashbacks" actually happened, or if they are some sort of a projected past...a "what if" of events chronicling the possible future Mia would have had if the accident would not have happened. The movie develops is surprising ways, going in directions that were not expected. While Mia's parents - and even her boyfriend Adam - seem too perfect, you have to remember that this story is seen from Mia's perspective. It's never blatantly stated. But approaching death, it's forgiven that someone may look back on one's life and see only the good.

As hokey as it may seem, the film boils down to this: Will Mia live or die, and is her love worth staying for? The longer her spirit lingers, the less attached she becomes to flesh and bone here on Earth. On this level, If I Stay is very "young adult" in its approach. But it also has a lot of very adult messages and themes in it.

Chloe Grace Moretz gives her best performance to date and really is the reason we continue to care about Mia. Stacy Keach as "Gramps" gives a surprisingly powerful and moving turn in a small role, adding a new layer of emotion to the story. Jamie Blackley is good enough as Adam, but his lack of chemistry with Moretz does take away slightly. For a movie that depends on us rooting for the romance to work, it was slightly disappointing that I kept thinking that Mia could do so much better.

If I Stay is the sort of film that worked incredibly well, despite a laundry list of flaws and short-comings that could be given to negate this. For me, it was one of the better Summer films and a refreshing young adult story that actually had something meaningful to say.

Genre: Drama

Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes, Rated PG-13

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Stacy Keach, Liana Liberato

Based on the book by Gayle Forman

Adapted for the screen by Shauna Cross (Whip It, What to Expect When You're Expecting)

Directed by R.J. Cutler (The World According to Dick Cheney, The September Issue, The Perfect Candidate)

Opens locally on Friday, Aug 22, 2014 (check for show times).

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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"

  • 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
  • 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
  • 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
  • 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
  • 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time