By Will Ashton
Like the seasons, adaptions of YA books seem to be coming and going these days. Of late, this seems to be neither a good nor bad trend, as each film in this genre varies in quality. For every Harry Potter or Hunger Games, there is an I Am Number Four or The Seeker: The Dark is Rising not far after.
Comparatively, there are probably more bad than good. But most of the “bad” movies have primarily just been mediocre at most, like Divergent or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones or the Percy Jackson movies. Ultimately, this middling majority is also where the latest YA book to film, If I Stay, falls suit.
Centered mainly on the life of Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who, despite her incredible cello-playing skills, can’t really manage to express herself in a social light, finds the young love of her life in a young rocker heartthrob named Adam (Jamie Blackley). After slowly forming a loving bond with this young gentleman, thinks start to look up for the young couple. Mia is almost finished with high school and is on her way to getting accepted in Julliard, while Adam’s band Shooting Star is getting more recognition and appreciation than it can handle.
But, as things begin to get so sweet, life hands her and her family a curveball after a fatal accident leaves them all in intense care, if that. Although she is fully conscious in spirit, Mia is unable to reenter her human body and reach out to her friends and family. Leaving her on a spiritual journey towards discovering her newly changing life, her life before this and what choices she has made and needs to make.
If I Stay can, at times, be sensitive in ways that feels more goodhearted and genuine than more YA adaptations. When it focuses on Adam and Mia’s relationship, there is a decent, good-natured chemistry between the two that makes the scenes feel breezy instead of clunky. That is, until anything slightly dramatic happens. But as the drama builds up and the pathos are expected to rise, the movie starts to lose itself in its manipulative, all-for-broke ways.
By constantly jumping back and forth between the characters past and their present, it feels as though this is two different movies thrown together, featuring the same characters. With one mini-movie significantly better than the other, it’s hard for If I Stay to not feel like a mixed bag. Director R.J. Cutler appears more at home when he is directing the predeceasing moments in the early days of this young relationship. But whenever the movie jumps back to being about Mia’s hospitalized condition, he feels too over focused on making this moments matter that they come across too overproduced and melodramatic. Which is a shame primarily because these are the moments where the movie needs to work, and it flat-out doesn’t.
While typically a reliable young actress, Mortez’s performance here as Mia is too insecure and unsure of itself to justify its film merits. Perhaps, after all the weird, offbeat characters she has had to play, she has become too distracted from playing a normal person or she is just misdirected. But her performance just does quite communicate an effective balance of Mia’s distraught personality. It feels too put on, and too over realized, to articulate the inner troubles of this young girl.
Making this even more unfortunate is the fact that her surrounding cast is fairly good across the board. The primary stand out comes from veteran actor Stacy Keach as Mia’s wise grandfather, but Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos are likable and believable enough as Mia’s loose-minded parents. Also giving an effectively charming performance is the movie’s main love interest. Much like Ansel Elgort in The Fault in Our Stars, Blackley may be a little too sweet and perfect, but he’s still enjoyable and charming as could be.
Considering what she was working with here (I was given the first couple chapters from the book before the movie began), its safe to say that screenwriter Shauna Cross did a respectable enough job translating this book’s not-amazing dialogue and writing to the screen in a more reasonable and convincing manner. Cross makes the dialogue smoother than author Gayle Forman’s rather clumsy and clunky conversations portrays. Yet she is still unable to make the movie step away from the tired emotion clichés of the past.
All things considered, If I Stay is a fine looking movie, with often gorgeous and well-nuanced cinematography from John de Borman. But its over-saturated lightning squanders some of the movie’s good looks, and its cheesy narrative features don’t invite you past its prettiness. Also not helping the movie is its awkward and forced comedy beats that often either make the film feel uneven or poorly paced.
More than anything else, Cutler’s film feels more familiar and underwhelming than poorly made. The biggest determinant in the movie’s corner is that it has to come out in the same summer as the aforementioned YA adaptation The Fault in Our Stars. Where Fault was able to become likably earnest and quick-witted, in spite of its narrative trappings, Stay is too plain faced and unimaginative in its filmmaking approach to score the big payoffs needed to emotionally resonate like Josh Boone’s movie did.
This mildly somber imagining of Forman’s novel may end up earning the trust of its readers. But due to its insecurities and mishandled narrative, the movie can’t be anything more than a better-than-average Lifetime movie, despite some fine supporting performance and well-composted shots. As far as these YA movies go, there are certainly worse, but there are also much better and more memorable ones too.