Movie review: Darkness overshadows 'If I Stay'

Enough already with the sad stories.

It’s not Chloe Grace Moretz’s fault that “If I Stay” was previewed in between news of Robin Williams’ suicide and the death of Lauren Bacall and the 24/7 drumbeat of other doleful news. And during the summer of “The Fault in Our Stars” about the ill-fated love of two teens who meet in a cancer support group.

'If I Stay

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley.

Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material. 

“If I Stay,” based on Gayle Forman’s novel of the same name, is largely set in Oregon, where the Hall family lives. Teenager Mia (Ms. Moretz) is a devoted cellist who has a lively younger brother, two very cool parents and, improbably even to her, a slightly older boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley), who is a rocker, a guitarist and a singer whose band is blowing up. 

Mia’s world is shattered when a family car ride ends in a catastrophic accident that leaves her in a coma and trying to determine who else — if anyone — has survived. Comatose Mia can see and hear what is happening in the hospital but cannot communicate with anyone or do the ghostly thing and walk through walls. The story is told through flashbacks, narration and present-day developments.

During surgery, a nurse exhorts: “You control this whole thing. If you live, if you die, it’s all up to you.” If only it were that simple, right?

“If I Stay,” directed by R.J. Cutler and adapted by Shauna Cross, teases out the fate of the other members of the Hall family and Adam’s attempt to do an end-run around ICU staff who will admit only relatives as visitors. Is her love for Adam enough to make her stay, or her devotion to music or her grandparents (Stacy Keach is almost guaranteed to make you cry) who desperately want her to live but will understand if she has to go?

As Mia’s mother (Mireille Enos) once counseled, “Life is this big, fat stinking mess. That’s the beauty of it.”

“If I Stay,” which is faithful to the book although it omits or compresses passages about Mia’s best friend or her audition for Juilliard, is still a story about a girl hovering between life and death with no palatable choice. This is lose-lose proposition; live, but without all of the family members you so loved, or die.

Somehow, even though the teens in “TFIOS” are gravely ill, they still find joy, gallows humor and snark. Perhaps the difference here is how early the accident happens; that shadow darkens everything, no matter how much Mia loses herself in music or finds love and common ground with Adam, played by the Brit whose credits include the London production of “Spring Awakenings.” 

Ms. Moretz, who made a name for herself with “Kick-Ass,” “Let Me In,” “Hugo,” “Dark Shadows” and “Carrie,” is a little too subdued and studious, although that is in keeping with the book. In some ways, the novel is more graphic, describing an accident victim with lips already blue and the whites of the eyes red, “like a ghoul from a low-budget monster movie.” I brought tissues but, surprisingly, reached for them only once.

“If I Stay” makes a bid for life, no matter the heart-wrenching physical or emotional obstacles. That is a valuable reminder, even as we reach or exceed our summer sadness quotient.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:

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