Cliché opening: They say life can change in an instant, and for Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), life does just that. While off on a road trip on a snowy day, she and her family wind up in a car accident. She awakens seemingly unscathed, but only seemingly. She’s having an out-of-body experience. She’s actually in a coma. Her parents are dead. Her brother is fighting for his life. A nurse whispers to her that she gets to pick whether she survives or dies. It’ll be a fight, but she can live if she wants to.
We view many, many, many flashbacks. We get to experience essentially the last year and a half of Mia’s life. We see how she meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), a punk rocker who instantly falls in love with her, a cello player. We see their relationship blossom, falter, and then flounder — and repeat. We watch her become slightly alienated from her family, filled with … more punk rockers. Apparently there are two types of people in Mia’s world: punk rockers and cello players.
I wasn’t kidding about the “and repeat” thing I mentioned earlier. If I Stay‘s worst offense is that it’s repetitive. It’s repetitive. It’s repetitive. The same scenes, the same dialogue, the same problems, the same themes — they’re repeated ad nauseam to the point of nausea; I almost wanted to throw up. Am I making my point clearly enough? Take out the repetition and If I Stay is about a 25-minute movie, maybe, and we’d be praising it as a wonderful short film. Seriously, there’s about 25 minutes of really good filmmaking and storytelling here.
The out-of-body experience makes for an interesting supernatural take on the whole thing. She gets to see happy and sad points from the last year and a half, and also gets to watch those close to her in the present day, as she’s in a coma. You don’t typically get to hear people talk to you while you’re lying comatose, but she does. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes during a scene in which her grandfather (Stacy Keach) opens up about being a father at her bedside. It’s legitimately heartbreaking.
If I Stay wants to be a tearjerker. It’s all supposed to be emotional, but it just isn’t. It fails because of its repetition. You can’t keep doing the same dance and expect it to be as impactful each time. The first time? Sure. The second time? Okay. The seventh? It gets stale. That’s how If I Stay functions. It has a few other moments that work pretty well, like the aforementioned grandfather scene, but for the most part it just doesn’t have the impact that it clearly wants to have.
Was this a problem with the novel, too? If I Stay started out as a novel written by Gayle Forman, and has been released as a film only five years after its publication. I mention this because it matters to some people. They want to know that it’s not an original film, and perhaps want to claim that they were fans of the book before it was adapted, because they’re hipsters. Oh, and the movie totally isn’t as good as the novel, because of reasons. Point is: if the premise intrigues you, maybe read you’ll want to try the book. I can’t recommend watching the movie.
If you want a reason to see If I Stay, it’s … well, there are those 25 minutes that are really solid. If you can somehow mentally forget about the repetitious fat that surrounds them and isolate them as individual moments, perhaps you’ll be entertained and maybe even moved. That’s a little under a third of the film’s running time, though, which is not anywhere near enough to serve as a recommendation.
Even Chloë Grace Moretz is less-than-stellar in the leading role. Or, she sometimes is. As a somewhat awkward teenager who feels like she doesn’t fit in, she’s pretty solid. As a romantic lead who constantly has to fight and then sell how sad she is after the fight, she’s not particularly good. Maybe she got bored of it after having to film the same type of scene over and over again. Or the direction wasn’t great. Or she just isn’t good at that type of scene. It could be.
Repetitive and cliché conclusion: If you can get past all of the repetition — all of the repetition — and focus on the 25 minutes of good filmmaking and storytelling, you might have a chance at enjoying If I Stay. But that’s a lot of fat you have to sit through, and there are definitely better ways to spend your time. Tearjerkers don’t work when they expect you to cry about tiny problems that are made to seem important because they’re repeated ad nauseam. If I Stay attempts to make you cry by doing exactly this, and it doesn’t succeed because of this technique.