I spent a good deal of If I Stay hoping that characters from Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — playing only one theater away — would somehow wander into this movie and settle the hash of everyone involved. Now, I’m not immune to sappy movies. Oh, I might hate myself the minute they’re over, but I’m more likely than not sitting there wiping my eyes over the mushiest manipulative nonsense while these things are onscreen. So why did I find myself dry-eyed for the entirety of If I Stay? Was it the clunky ham-handedness of the movie’s notions of an out-of-body experience? Or was it the “everything but the bloodhounds nippin’ at her rear end” ever-mounting tragedies? Or could it have been Chloë Grace Moretz’s tendency to express her emotions by proving herself a graduate of the Corey Haim Mouth-Breathing School of Acting? Or should we blame it on a screenplay that presents every “important” thought in purest bumperstickerese? Well, yes, it’s all this and more in what might best be expressed with, “Forget it, Jake; it’s August release floor-sweepings.”
If I Stay is also one of those “if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie” propositions — in fact, the trailer is such a chuckleheaded affair that it tips off the family body count before you’ve seen the movie. (I guess they presume you’ve read the popular YA source novel.) Oh, sure, the film tries to milk all manner of tension out of the story’s resolution, but it’s really a lot of wheel spinning unless the viewer is very credulous indeed. Even if you buy into the debatable notion that folks in out-of-body, near-death experiences are choosing whether to stay on earth or move on to the next plateau, the question of will she or won’t she stay feels like a stacked deck. Chances are you’ll be wishing our heroine would just make up her mind, so the rest of us can go home long before the resolution.
The story concerns Mia Hall (Moretz) — budding genius classical cellist — whose big concerns in life are whether or not she’ll get into Juilliard and what this will do to her relationship with hot rock ‘n’ roller boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), whose band is making a name for itself on the West Coast. Most of this has been force-fed to us in the film’s opening scenes — complete with narration by Mia — with extra lashings of what a picture-perfect family she has. Dad (Joshua Leonard) used to be a punk rocker — with a band called Nasty Bruises — but he decided to turn to teaching and become a full-time dad. Mom (Mireille Enos), on the other hand, was once some kind of rocker girl who also opted for life as a mom and travel agent. But they’re still rockers at heart — you can tell because they call everybody “dude” or “man” — and perfect parents to both Mia and her precocious, rock-lyric-quoting little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies). They are not, however, so perfect that they don’t foolishly take everyone for a drive on a day when the weather’s so bad that the schools are closed for a snow day. Disaster — and the supernatural plot — follows.
Mia awakes from the car wreck seemingly unscathed and in full “ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” makeup and a suitably bland limbo-land ensemble. Ah, but this is her out-of-body self who is watching the paramedics get her and her family to the hospital in an attempt to save their lives. Unlike most tales of out-of-body expeiences, Mia remains firmly rooted to the laws of earthly physics — except that no one can see or hear her — a device that leads to her endlessly running around hospital corridors to keep track of who’s alive and who isn’t. Between lots of flashbacks, Mia ponders what she should do. How you’ll feel about this will depend entirely on whether or not you buy into Mia and her cosmic quandary — not to mention how much bad writing, so-so rock music, CGI cello playing, and how many barely defined characters and situations you’re willing to endure. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material.