If I Stay

2014-09-19 13:45
What's it about:

Mia Hall is your average teenage girl about to graduate high school: juggling boy problems, trying to get into the college of her dreams and figuring out where she, a classical-music-loving cellist fits into her hip, punk-rock family. After being involved in a major car crash and with her life hanging in the balance, she has is suddenly confronted with the most crucial question of all.

What we thought:

It's all but impossible not compare If I Stay with The Fault in our Stars when the two films, separated by a mere couple of months, have so much in common - at least on the surface. Both films are based on highly successful young adult novels, both feature the struggles of a teenage girl at their centre and both deal with themes of love and loss, when superimposed against life and death. They're also both, as it so happens, the work of newcomer directors as Fault's Josh Boone only had one directing credit to his name before taking on the massive YA hit, while If I Stay's R.J. Cutler may have a fairly extensive career on TV but this is his first feature film.
Unfortunately, If I Stay doesn't exactly benefit from the comparison. It's a perfectly good teen tearjerker that more or less accomplishes what it sets out to do and features a number of nice performances, an enjoyably eclectic soundtrack and plenty of heart. What it doesn't have, however, is a level of intelligence or a sense of humour to counteract its more mawkishly sentimental moments. More than anything else though, it suffers from everything looking a bit second rate in comparison to the Fault in Our Stars: its script, direction and performances are all fine but it's unlikely that they're strong enough to bump the film's appeal beyond its target audience.

It's hardly surprising then, that it has largely been rubbished by cynical middle-aged critics – but, frankly, they do end up looking rather silly as a result. I'm a thirty-two years-old male and though I did basically enjoy If I Stay well enough, it's clearly not really meant for me and it's certainly not meant for anyone who come to it with anything resembling a more cynical, snobbish disposition. This is a film made for twelve year old girls, first and foremost, and though it isn't entirely alienating to anyone older or of the opposite sex, it should be judged as such.

It does, for a start, look especially good in comparison to something like Twilight and the slew of entirely forgettable Twilight knockoffs, as it has better dialogue, a more intelligent story, far stronger performances and a lead female character that is more than just a hapless, mopy victim (sorry Bella fans). It's emotionally manipulative, obviously, but the obvious emotional manipulation is only really a problem when the film strays just a bit too far into the shady territory of “misery porn”. Otherwise, its tugging on the old heartstrings is fairly effective.

Where it is rather less effective, unfortunately, is at balancing its different plot strands into a fully cohesive whole – especially thematically. The film tackles self-identity, music and love and it attempts to ask the question of what makes life worth living but these various elements don't quite mesh, resulting in an ending that feels largely uncertain of itself. It certainly isn't helped by the fact that the love story (told in flashbacks) and the more existential life-and-death sections never really sit all that well together. Yes, “If I Stay” is literally the theme of both parts of the film, but it never feels like enough to really bridge together the two narrative streams.  

As the film's anchor, Chloe Grace Moretz does an admirable job playing against her strengths, as she replaces the biting comedy of Kick Ass and her memorable performances in 30 Rock with a more straightforward, if slightly nerdy, regular teenager and is supported by a very strong cast who do at times elevate their occasionally underwritten roles. Stealing the show, however, is Stacy Keach whose role as Mia's grandfather may be small, but is one of the film's brightest highlights.

Ultimately, If I Stay probably won't join the ranks of YA/ kids-lit films like The Fault in Our Stars or the Perks of Being a Wallflower - not to mention major franchises like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter - in being able to transcend their respective target audiences and make a considerable mark on general audiences, but taken for what it is, it's really not half bad.

It has a number of major flaws but its target audience of twelve year old girls will no doubt be able to see past them and enjoy the film for what it is. This may not be the case for the rest of us, but unless you're a particularly snotty, cynical film critic, there's more than enough good, solid stuff to hang your hat on if you're, say, “forced” to see it with your teenage daughter.

It's critically hurt by comparisons to the similar and far superior The Fault in Our Stars, but f I Stay is an above-average teen weepie that should work wonders on its target audience.
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