Chloë Grace Moretz is 17 now, and in the past four years and change, I’ve seen her play a superheroine (Kick-Ass), a vampire (Let Me In), a werewolf (Dark Shadows), and a girl who can move things with her mind (Carrie). Her latest movie, If I Stay, gives her a rare opportunity to play an ordinary contemporary teen who isn’t going to kill anyone. And, well, she’s kinda boring in it. However, the material in this dull weeper doesn’t give her much to work with.
She portrays Mia Hall, a Portland high school senior and a classical cello prodigy in a family of punk rockers. As the movie begins, her biggest worry is whether she’s going to get into Juilliard and, if so, whether that means she’ll have to break up with her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), a rock singer whose band has just signed to a label and is already touring the Northwest. All that changes during a family road trip one winter day, when her parents’ car skids on an icy road and crashes. While her broken body lies in a coma, her spirit wanders the halls of the hospital and takes in the reactions of her friends and extended family. She also hears a benevolent trauma nurse and regrettable racial stereotype (Aisha Hinds) tell her unresponsive self that it’s her choice whether she dies or carries on with her immediate family gone.
Not to spoil the Gayle Forman novel that this is based on, but come on. Does anybody really think Mia’s going to choose death here, with music and either Juilliard or an adoring boyfriend waiting for her? Attempting to de-emphasize this fake point of suspense, the script by Shauna Cross (a YA novelist herself who adapted her own book into Whip It, a better movie than this one) intercuts between Mia’s life before the accident and its aftermath. Director R.J. Cutler (a documentarian helming his first fiction film) botches this strategy and fails to capture the strangeness of Mia’s disembodied state. There’s also some bad writing when Mia describes how she feels when she plays, as well as one of the worst-written sex scenes I’ve seen in some time.
Moretz is fundamentally miscast, too. Both here and in Carrie, she’s portraying girls who look around and see only cooler people, and it turns out that playing that kind of deep-rooted insecurity isn’t her strong suit. She misses the pathos in the Halloween scene in which Mia dresses up as a rocker chick to try to impress Adam. Tellingly, she’s much better in the later scenes, when Mia and Adam start snapping at each other over their impending breakup. Mia’s a girl who’s constantly shrinking into herself, and despite Moretz’ small stature, she can’t pull it off.
Amid the movie’s overall failure, there are some nice bits to be sifted out. Saddled with the role of a guy who’s several degrees too good to be true, Blackley nevertheless looks and sounds every bit the part of an up-and-coming rock star as he sings lead on five songs. (This British newcomer who has done musical theater on the London stage also has an American accent that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.) Elsewhere on the musical front, Alisha Bauer* plays for Moretz on the soundtrack and gives stately readings of Bach and Beethoven, as well as a crackling version of Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto when Mia auditions for Juilliard. The movie was actually shot in Vancouver, and the concert hall at the University of British Columbia forms a striking backdrop for one scene when Adam takes Mia to see Alisa Weilerstein in concert. As Mia’s more outgoing best friend, the awesomely named Liana Liberato gets to crack some jokes and makes off with her scenes.
Still, just like everyone else here, she succumbs to the desensitizing treacle that this movie applies to the story. For all its attempts to capture roiling teenage emotions and its characters’ love of music, If I Stay can make only prettified sounds when it plucks the strings.
* Note: This article, when originally published, did not contain the cellist’s name.
If I Stay
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley. Directed by R.J. Cutler. Written by Shauna Cross, based on Gayle Forman’s novel. Rated PG-13.