DIR: R.J. Cutler • WRI: Shauna Cross • PRO: Denise Di Novi, Alison Greenspan • ED: Keith Henderson • DOP: John de Borman • DES: Brent Thomas • MUS: Heitor Pereira • Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Stacy keach, Liana Liberato
If I Stay reminds one of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers in that it chooses to use a framing device that feels superfluous to the narrative. Its hospital-based scenes (the lens through which we view the central plot) underscore a rather lively and touching narrative, but the film could have stood alone on its central plot. While The Fault In Our Stars examined youth and illness with plenty of attention given to the tiny nuances of the experience, If I Stay prefers instead to offer its viewers gratuitous crying scenes in place of meaningful interaction. It is these post-death, emotion-laden scenes that feel manipulatively designed to provoke adolescent passion. There is an insincerity in these moments that cannot be overlooked. The Fault In Our Stars felt like it cared about its characters. If I Stay cares about them only enough to get a rise out of its audience.
Based on a young adult novel novel by Gayle Forman, the film follows Mia, the victim of a car accident, as she replays memories from her life and relationships. These memories are full of good dialogue and distinctive characters, recalling the likes of Juno. Like a novel written in the vernacular, the viewer must overcome initial resistance to the stylistics of both the dialogue and the cinematography and, when that is achieved, these elements become irresistable. Mia’s parents are memorable characters, and the tension between generations is nicely capsulated in Mia’s desire to play cello while her father remains an old-school punk rocker.
The film is visually striking, and offers claustrophobic spaces in which Mia plays out her relationships. Rather than appearing dreamlike, these flashback sequences are the most vivid and colourful of the film. It is almost a shame that the car accident plot exists at all, because during these flashbacks we witness dialogue so sharp and funny that the hospital scenes come across as variably dull and manipulative. This framing failure really cuts away at the heart of the film which, otherwise, might have been a pleasant film about music, relationships, and the generation gap.
Its narrative is fresh enough that the viewer can’t easily settle into predicting what will happen. There are enough original turns of phrase and new variations on interactions to make If I Stay an invigorating watch – more than your average blockbuster. That it comes from a young adult novel in a time when young adult novels are pushing the boat out further than perhaps any other form of literature is relevant, although If I Stay is one of the tamer books around. A lot of viewers misunderstood The Fault In Our Stars – thinking it to be a kind of cry-fest rather than a well-researched portrayal of illness as an identity – but If I Stay offers the kind of empty experience that was claimed for Fault.
So it’s enjoyable, fresh in many ways, but not particularly nuanced or interesting. Worth a watch.