Teen tragi-romance survives on lead’s appeal
Chloe Grace Moretz came to the movie-going public’s startled attention as the foul-mouthed, butt-kicking adolescent Hit Girl in Kick Ass. Her role as creative, sensitive Mia in the new If I Stay could hardly be further from that earlier performance, but the two disparate films share one asset: the remarkable appeal of the winsome Ms. Moretz. Her winning portrayal of a young girl struggling through a life and death scenario (quite literally) rescues this touching-if-predictable teen melodrama.
Moretz plays Mia, a thoughtful, introverted cello prodigy, who navigates the perils of her first romance. She and her beau, Adam (Jamie Blackley) meet through a mutual love of music, though she is a little bit Beethoven and he’s a little bit rock and roll. Their relationship is tested by different musical career goals that start taking them in opposite directions.
The situation becomes even more poignant (or perhaps overwrought, depending on your point of view) when Mia and her family are involved in a serious automobile accident. In an out-of-body experience, Mia watches her actual self stuck in a coma. She must decide whether to stay and live a life radically altered from her prior expectations.
If I Stay suffers from an overly earnest world view and a screenplay full of endearing yet familiar tropes. Her parents are a little too terrifically unconventional, the musical gulf separating the two young lovers is clichéd, and the family and friends’ tense moments in the hospital waiting rooms too reminiscent of a solid episode of ER.
But the film survives on the connection Moretz creates with the viewer, a skill she demonstrated more coarsely in Kick Ass, more gothically in Let Me In, and more whimsically in Hugo. Here, as in many of her other earlier roles, she comes across as grounded and accessible, similar to Jennifer Lawrence but without Lawrence’s edginess. As Adam, Blackley holds his own with Moretz, but director R.J. Cutler knows the story (and the film) depend on Moretz. He keeps the camera focused on her.
If I Stay is not a film for everyone. One can only assume its demographic will skew heavily to teen girls in sympathy with the protagonist’s rites of passage. For them, the story and the star will transcend the limits of the screenplay to deliver the wished-for sequence of sweetly sorrowful pangs that yield smiles of triumph.