I might have a heart of stone, but the film version of If I Stay did not reduce me to the sniveling mess that Gayle Forman’s excellent young adult novel triggered. I wanted to cry; I wanted If I Stay to achieve what the similarly flat The Fault In Our Stars did not. Both suffer from the good old “Book Is Better Than The Movie” syndrome - a cliché I hate to trot out, but what works so well on the page comes across as overly earnest on the screen.
Don’t get me wrong. The film is beautifully shot, the casting excellent, and it stays fairly true to the source material. It’s enjoyable. It’s just that it’s a little too sanitized to illustrate the stomach-dropping horror of having to make the choice whether to live or die, when life as you know it will never be the same again.
Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a seventeen-year-old, terminally uncool cello player who was raised by ex-punk rockers Denny and Kat (Joshua Leonard and Mireille Enos). Even her little brother Teddy (Jakob Davies) has more street cred than she does. Her older boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) is a rising rock musician who inexplicably (in her mind) wants to hang out with Yo Yo Ma’s #1 fan. All she needs now is to get into Julliard for the perfect life. That, and a healthy injection of self-confidence.
That is, until the day her family suffers a horrific car wreck, instantly killing some, others left barely hanging on. This scene is the exact point where I knew that nothing in this movie would be as gut-churning as the novel. The novel’s description of the car wreck is visceral in the truest sense of the word. Mia has an out-of-body experience in which she surveys the mangled mess and bloody bodies of her family, strewn across the road. No punches are pulled - yet in the movie, we are treated to a gorgeous snowy day, body bags already being zipped over the worst of the damage, family members delicately splayed across the snowbank with the barest hint of trauma.
For the movie to work, we need to feel Mia’s horror. We need to see the devastation and realize that there is no going back - otherwise, the flashbacks to happier times are not nearly as poignant. Mia flutters around, looking sad, confused and beautiful, which is more or less how she appears in the flashbacks, too.
There are several truly bright points in the movie, though. Although the movie was obviously meant to appeal to YA fans and teen girls everywhere, Mia’s effortlessly cool punk-rock parents are the true stars. They regard baby Mia’s affection for the cello with a kind of amused horror; they cheerfully tell Mia that if she’s hungover she’s grounded. Their motley band of musician friends appear, too, trying to coax Mia out of her classical cello shell and into their community. They perfectly illustrate the dichotomy of the Hall family: classic versus rock, introverted versus extroverted, alone versus together.
I was similarly thrilled with what could have been the most wince-inducing part of the movie: Adam’s band. Renamed Willamette Stone (an improvement from the book’s Shooting Star moniker), Jamie Blackley turns in a convincing performance as a good-looking, talented indie rocker with a devoted female fan contingent. The club scenes portrayed everything I love to see at concerts: an enthusiastic band, dancing fans, dramatic lighting and dark, smoke-filled corners. These were the only times I envied Mia (then I resented her for whining that Adam never wrote a song for her).
No, the wincing was saved for Adam’s bedside acoustic performance at the hospital (“You wrote me a song,” Out of Body Mia gasps), or when he whispers to her that having sex will be like playing an instrument. (In the book, Mia takes out her cello bow and “plays” his body, in a surprisingly sexy scene that puts everyone else’s real-life deflowering foreplay to shame.)
Although Adam is the stuff of teen (and okay, I admit, in my case, adult) fantasies everywhere, the movie makes the mistake of focusing on the love story rather than the Hall family. After all, Mia’s reluctance to live stems from the fact that her entire immediate family either is or may soon be dead. All the hot rocker boyfriends in the world can’t make that okay, but the film treads dangerously close (including the “Live For Love” tagline) to espousing that theory.
All in all, this wasn’t a bad movie - not even close to bad. I saw many a tear-stained face and heard many an “aww,” so I know others probably enjoyed it as much as I wished I had. For contemporary teen movies, you could do worse. It’s just that it falls short of the eerie, devastating source material, and that’s the real tragedy of If I Stay.