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It’s easy to see why Chloe Grace Moretz wanted to be in If I Stay — it’s an adaptation of a hit YA book, she’s a rapidly rising star and the role is her first full-fledged romantic lead. But a few minutes into the drippy teen love-and-death story, you’ll likely wish she hadn’t. That is, unless you’re a teenager yourself, which may mean you’ll be swooning too hard to be bothered by the lame dialogue, heartstring-yanking music and tired visual approach.
The film’s makers, including director R.J. Cutler and screenwriter Shauna Cross (working from Gayle Forman’s novel), are clearly playing to a target audience — the same folks who lined up earlier this summer for the vastly superior The Fault in Our Stars — though they do so with dismayingly little effort to freshen up the formula.
The well-received novel’s following, as well as the popularity of the movie’s pair of pretty young stars, could very well prove to be a late-summer multiplex draw. Still, Both Cutler (who made the very fine documentary The September Issue) and Moretz, a charismatic screen presence (her supporting turn in Olivier Assayas’ upcoming Sils Maria is a master class in perfectly modulated aloofness), can do better.
The actress plays Mia, a 17-year-old cello prodigy with dreams of Juilliard and a slightly older musician boyfriend named Adam (Jamie Blackley), who’s often on the road with his band. A car accident leaves Mia, her bohemian parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and younger brother (Jakob Davies) comatose, and most of If I Stay alternates between an out-of-body Mia racing around the hospital and flashbacks to her time with Adam, a stud in skinny jeans, who, on the night of her deflowering, tells her to “think of it like we’re playing music together.”
Such lines may work on the page, but whispered ardently on the big screen accompanied by soft emo rock, they land with a thud — and the movie keeps them coming at an alarming pace.
Moretz has often been cast as an eccentric (the obscenity-spewing Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, the lonely little vampire in Let Me In, a regally spoiled brat in Dark Shadows, the titular outcast in Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie remake); she’s good at playing against her own polished wholesomeness. Mia, on the other hand, is sweet and sincere — probably the most “normal” character the actress has ever embodied — and, deploying a range of innocuous eye-rolls and pleading pouts, Moretz fails to find any jagged edges in her.
Blackley is less self-conscious and conveys a few authentic swells of emotion, but Mia’s relationship with Adam has little electricity and near-zero substance; they’re supposed to have been together over a year, but their stiff interactions sound like the stuff of first dates.
It doesn’t help that Cutler relies on a stable of formal clichés, including a falling-in-love montage, a boozy party shot in handheld, a blast of white light when an unconscious character drifts toward death and a scene in which the camera circles Mia anxiously as she overhears bad news.
Stacy Keach provides a bit of relief from all the oppressive earnestness in his brief appearance as Mia’s grandfather, evoking a depth of feeling otherwise missing here.
There’s one gently rousing moment near the end: a campfire sing-along that finds Mia and Adam joining in an impromptu rendition of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today.” It’s another cheesy moment in a movie full of them, but it also feels like life — which is more than can be said for the rest of If I Stay.
Production company: DiNovi Pictures
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Stacy Keach
Director: R.J. Cutler
Screenwriters: Shauna Cross (based on the novel by Gayle Forman)
Producers: Alison Greenspan
Executive producers: Denise Di Novi, Brad Van Arragon, Gayle Forman
Director of photography: John de Borman
Production designer: Brent Thomas
Costume designer: Monique Prudhomme
Editor: Keith Henderson
Music: Heitor Pereira
Rated PG-13, 106 minutes
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