If I Stay (★★★)

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if_i_stayToo often adaptations of young adult (YA) novels are shallow, adult recollections of what they presume is going on with the youth of today, desperately trying to recapture a sound they haven’t heard in decades.  The latest teen offering, If I Stay, follows the basic tenets laid down in the YA handbook, but transcends the medium with genuine reactions and acting in a way we haven’t seen since The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a quiet teenager who spends her days playing the cello. She catches the eye of cool rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley) and the two quickly fall in love with each other. When Mia ends up in a car crash, losing her parents and ending up in limbo between life and death, she must decide if love is worth living for.

Knowing nothing about Gayle Forman’s book series, the premise indicated a standard teen romance with the sappiness kicked up to 11. Are we going to get something in the vein of “Gossip Girl in Sweet Valley of the Traveling Pants?” Will the power of Adam’s LURVE save Mia from the brink of death? If I Stay is a focused, young adult story filled with nuance and depth of character. Color me surprised! In a world of Edwards and Bellas, Adam and Mia are remarkably well-rounded. Sure, Mia suffers from “pretty nerd” syndrome, believing no one “sees” her because she’s so involved with her cello. But Mia is a complex character with dreams of applying to Julliard; she has no illusions about her romance lasting forever, openly talking to her best friend (Liana Liberato) about how it could fail. You aren’t witnessing a grand romance where marriage and kids are plotted out already. This isn’t the one and only romance of their lives, but of the moment. This the tale of one average girl struggling with first love, nothing particularly special and Earth shatter, and in a landscape where every teen romance is meant to be it’s rather refreshing. Even the adults don’t have all the answers and find themselves lost or contradictory. A family friend who proclaims she never wants kids, ends up having a child by story’s end, showing adults change their minds as well. Nothing is set in stone, which only heightens the tension of the life and death plotline Mia’s fate hinges on.

Moretz is the coy mistress of awkward teendom, and the character of Mia is just the right blend of adult and teenager for her. It wouldn’t be a YA romance without an Instagram filtered love montage to indie rock, but Moretz sells her character beyond the cuteness, especially her romance with Blackley. She isn’t overly profound in her discussions about what makes Adam amazing, and she isn’t willing to compromise who she is for him – although she asks him if he’d prefer her to change. When the two finally have sex – yes, a teen movie with actual sexual congress – it’s because Mia wants to and not some grand pronouncement that their fates are aligned or some such crap. Mia isn’t a powder puff heroine, and remove the death storyline and the YA tale of a rock star and his high-school girlfriend works as a solid feature on its own. (Had we created this a few years back Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi” would be the theme song….ugh). This is Moretz’s movie and she proves she won’t suffer the awkward transition from teen to adult.

As for our male lead, I doubt teen girls will be holding posters of Jamie Blackley in the future. For most of the film I was unsure if IfIStayhis character was internalizing his emotions or was a plank of wood. He’s the “rocker” who wears Sonic Youth t-shirts and notices Mia’s forehead crinkles (talk about her crow’s feet next!). The faults are both script and Blackley’s acting, but where Mia seems so real, Adam comes off as fake. He goes on and on about abandonment and daddy issues, but leaves Mia in the lurch several times, even while she’s in a coma! There’s inability to cope and straight up jerk. The movie never turns Adam into a cad, but it’s hard to feel for him when Mia is infinitely more mature and in a more dire situation.

The life and death storyline, which the trailers romanticize to the sorrowful strains of A Great Big World’s “Say Something,”  is the film’s lynchpin as flashbacks play of Mia’s life during her decision to live or die. The tension is in the air from the immediate aftermath of the wreck till the final sequence, especially when her family members are revealed as alive or dead. A niggling issue is Mia narrates during her death scenes, a completely unnecessary device, especially as we’re never privy to who she’s talking to. There’s no implication she’s talking to God, Buddha, Krishna, but acknowledging the audience watching her life.  The narration sounds like pages from the original novel; they never sound like dialogue Mia would say as we’ve heard her speak and the two tones are different. Instead of having her think these things, considering she’s half dead, why doesn’t she take A Great Big World’s advice and say it?

Regardless, the death plotline is where the emotional meat is found and there’s some fantastic acting, particularly from Stacey Keach as Gramps. The scene is briefly shown in the trailer, but the full impact must be felt from beginning to end, as he tells a comatose Mia about his inability to convey feelings and understanding if she’s ready to go. The point where the script hits hardest is the realization that there’s just as much reason for Mia to live as to die. For her friends, the hardest thing is letting her go, but it’s understandable considering what she’d be coming back to. It almost makes the movie’s final image a let-down, but necessary considering the second book is already out.

Speaking of Keach, the adults here are the equally well-developed and steal several scenes. Moretz is complimented by the fantastic Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard as her mother and father, two ex-rockers content with parenthood. Their characters are two people, continuing the push for authenticity, who understand the need to make sacrifices for their children and never begrudge them for it; they love their children and genuinely enjoy being with them. They fall into “cool parent” cliches, like being okay with Mia staying out late, and seemingly not noticing a teen boy sexing up their daughter in her bedroom, but their flashbacks – a little Mia playing the cello into the wee hours – are funny parent nightmares.

I thoroughly enjoyed If I Stay, and I’ll have a lot of crow to eat after this review goes live. Shauna Cross’ script and Moretz’s acting shine with authenticity. In a world of YA movies about dystopian societies and fantastical romances, the struggle between life and death is normal and allows for strong characters to come through; where young women are superhero or mock-saviors, an average teenager girl is okay, guys.  This is a movie about love transcending, but not controlling. In a world where girls are told to take love as the end all, be all, If I Stay lets our heroine weigh her options and decide what’s best for her.