"If I Stay" Wallows In Miserable Melodrama

Love it or loathe it, would-be tearjerker “If I Stay” is determined to make moviegoers feel bad. R.J. Cutler’s film is a two-lane highway of misery, destined to defeat viewers through either the sheer force of its ruthlessness – screenwriter Shauna Cross crosses names off her register like a hit list – or its breathtaking phoniness. The film whines like a dog whistle for cynics, aiming for the lowest kind of tragedy porn – exploiting the type of real-life heartbreak that people face everyday – but straining to reach even the bottommost rung of melodrama. Characters die because they have to, cuing the tears of teenagers with the subtlety of a foghorn.

But let’s back up. The line between tearjerker and sob story is all at once fine and fuzzy. The right mix of humor, warmth, and tragedy will set moviegoers’ eyes to glisten, gone glassy and red for hours on end. Thrown off balance, that same formula will set eyes to roll, leaving groans echoing long after the theater has emptied. Which is exactly what happens here. If June’s “The Fault In Our Stars” was an ideal of the genre (young adult novels-turned-films), “If I Stay” is its negative, remarkably inept from concept to execution and all points in between. It carries itself with unearned self-importance, when it’s little more than an especially mildewed blueprint from the Hollywood scrap heap.

Chloe Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass”) stars as Mia – teenager, cello prodigy, and black sheep of her family – born to Denny (Joshua Leonard) and Kat (Mireille Enos), a couple of burned out rockers turned hipsters. We know this because they talk incessantly about their hip taste in music and generally permissive parenting. Mia is understandably caught between her roots and the kind of life she aspires to, an identity crisis thrown further into flux by her first real relationship and a pending application to the Juilliard School Of Music.

But little of her story is revealed until after Mia and her family experience a life-threatening car crash, with our lead spending the rest of the film living an out of body experience. As Mia watches herself lie in a hospital bed, fighting for her life, it’s clear that Cutler and company see their film as something timeless, borderline Dickensian. In reality, it’s trite and poorly-staged, with Mia’s spirit repeatedly trying and failing to interact with loved ones. Moreover, weaving the majority of her backstory into the pic’s second and third acts renders a potentially powerful story completely inane, zeroing in on boy-girl drama as Mia and her family lie dying in a hospital.

On one hand, Mia’s boyfriend and indie rocker, Adam (Jamie Blackley), is a blank canvas, allowing teenage girls to project their idealized version of a boyfriend onto him. On the other hand, he’s a blank canvas, utterly devoid of charisma, charm, and any qualities that might lend themselves to a healthy relationship. It’s a thoroughly underwritten character and Blackley comes off as a low rent, adolescent Keanu Reeves, minus any acting ability. We’re told repeatedly that the couple has a perfect relationship, not a trace of which makes it screen, our lead seemingly unhappy with Adam and his boorish behavior.

In defining Mia through her relationships – mostly of the romantic kind – the screenplay cancels out its lone silver lining. That the pic features a female protagonist is admirable, but entirely robbing her of her own identity? Not as admirable. Moretz plays along with the script’s mawkish melody, shrugging her way through the pain, often wondering aloud if life has any intrinsic value. As Mia gets more and more bad news about her family, she begins to move toward a literal tunnel of white light, only to be brought back by the corniest of plot revelations.

As a near-death Mia warmly recalls the “greatest day [she’s] ever known” – a recent cookout with her family, boyfriend, and friends of friends – the group, now mere ghosts from a past life, break into song. But not just any song. Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” cribbing the song’s refrain of “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known” for the most obvious, hammer-to-head song placement in recent memory. It’s where the film finally becomes impressive in its incompetency, a metaphor for its own ineptitude. There are no further comparisons to made, with “If I Stay” lapping itself in a race towards tastelessness that no one asked it to run.

The pic’s conclusion is startling, its final moments alluding to life having no real value beyond cinematic moments that rarely (if ever) happen in real life. But Cutler’s film deserves credit for owning its awfulness, staying the course from beginning to end. A less interesting film might fall victim to the occasional bit of insightful dialogue or stray moment of solid acting work. But not “If I Stay,” a film with so little self-awareness that it uses a delicate cover of Beyonce’s “Halo” to signify its lead’s loss of virginity. No, it mostly exists to make people unhappy, one way or another.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: August 22, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, MGM
Director: R.J. Cutler
Screenwriter: Shauna Cross
Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Liana Liberato, Aisha Hinds, Stacy Keach
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements and some sexual material)