Saturday 6 September 2014

Movie Review: If I Stay (2014)

A simple love story with an ethereal layer examining the value of life, If I Stay is affectionate without breaking through to any deep levels of emotional connectedness.

Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a high schooler and talented cellist in Portland, Oregon. She lives at home in a loving family consisting of with her dad Denny (Joshua Leonard), mom Kat (Mireille Enos), and younger brother Teddy. Mia is going through a turbulent relationship with Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley), a guitarist one year older and the leader of an up-and-coming local rock band.

On a family outing, the Halls are involved in a horrific car crash, and all are transferred to hospital, fighting for their lives. Mia is in a coma, and her spirit is suspended between life and death, a silent but anguished witness to the frantic activity at the hospital. In flashback, the story of her passionate romance with Adam is recounted, including the tentative beginnings, the joyous blossoming, and the tender physical closeness. As they both face the prospects of continued success in their chosen fields of music, their relationship is strained. Back at the hospital, Mia has to decide if life is worth the challenges that come with living.

If I Stay is a simple story of teenage love wrapped up in a metaphysical state of suspension between life and death. The film is overflowing with good intentions, but succeeds in being mostly pleasantly average.

Most of the drama delves into the details of humdrum first love between the popular guy and the self-conscious serious girl. The Shauna Cross script (adapting the Gayle Forman book) doesn't seem to know what to do with the more interesting life or death choice facing the comatose Mia. Too many of the hospital scenes degenerate into Mia aimless running down hallways, silently debating whether to walk into the bright light, and passively observing as the doctors, nurses and visitors fuss around her bed-ridden body.

Fortunately, director R. J. Cutler has a few good elements to play with, and he puts them to good use. Mia's family dynamic is refreshingly stable, with a quirky modern background. Dad is an ex-drummer in a garage band who gave up the fading dream of stardom and settled down as a teacher to provide stability for his kids. Mom is a travel agent not beyond phoning in sick to enjoy a snow day with her family. Mia is an ordinary teenager, talented at the cello and facing an early choice between the Julliard school of music and staying close to Adam, himself frequently on the road.

Music plays a big part in If I Stay, and Cutler magically weaves the sounds of life into the story while avoiding obvious obtrusiveness. Music is in Mia's blood, although her chosen instrument is not what her parents may have anticipated, while music is Adam's salvation. The snippets of music from both their lives move the story forward, the performances of Adam's band nudging him towards a break-out record deal and Mia's dedication to the cello culminating in a spiritual performance when it matters most.

The setting of Portland and the surrounding beauty of the Northwest (filming actually took place in and around Vancouver, British Columbia) also conveys middle class normalcy, a naturally beautiful but unglamourous place where people grow-up, live their dreams, fall in love, and sometime unexpectedly die.

The film rides on the young shoulders of Chloë Grace Moretz, and she is fully up to the task. While sometimes struggling against the creakier aspects of the script, Moretz puts on a fine show as a quiet yet confident teenager, a bit self-conscious, eager to break out of her tender shell and yet not swept up by the notoriety of dating the coolest up-and-coming musician in town. Blackley as Adam is an adequate combo of edgy, talented, ambitious, and compassionate, while Stacy Keach shows up as Grandpa and contributes plenty of grizzled presence.

Heartfelt without being taxing, If I Stay is worth sticking around for.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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