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Thursday, August 21, 2014

If I Stay Review: Typical YA Fare Lacks Emotional Punch

Although well-intentioned, If I Stay is yet another hollow YA cryfest.
This has been the Summer of YA and the results have been meh - from Divergent to The Fault in Our Stars, 2014 has tried its best to bring in the teenagers, all while adults roll their eyes at the melodrama. If I Stay follows the same tired themes of teenage love mixed with tragedy, and the result is only slightly better than other submissions.

Cellist Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) has a natural talent: given the instrument as an infant, her talents have grown quickly. Yet her social life is one of missed opportunities and long hours practicing, until she and rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley) kindle an unlikely love affair. What Adam doesn't know is that Mia has applied to Julliard, which will take her far away from her Portland roots; Adam's band is gaining notoriety, and soon the two realize their time is limited. Everything comes to a tragic halt when Mia's parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and brother are killed in a car accident, with Mia clinging to life in a coma. As she's forced into an out-of-body experience which allows her to move through her shattered life, Mia must decide if life is more important than the bright light of the after-world calling her to an unknown future.

Moretz does have the gravitas to carry a picture, but here that presence is ill-used and reduces her to a disembodied spirit who actually needs people to open doors for her one minute and can then transport herself to other times with no trouble. But we're not here to analyze metaphysics or the after-life - we're here to ball our brains out, but Stay lacks the emotional punch. If I Stay feels like a ABC After-School Special - it's filled with every teenage trope and cliché without ever making a solid case for why we should stick around. Sure there's the inevitable 'You can let go now' declaration from Grandfather Stacy Keach that will push the ladies over the edge, but the rest feels too amateurish to be moving or even effective. This is not Meet Joe Black or My Life by a longshot. Those will leave you in dribbling messes, while Stay will actually bore you in several places.

Director R.J. Cutler isn't all to blame, although so much of the interplay comes off as either forced or disingenuous. He fails to establish the rules of Mia's heightened state, granting her the ability to travel through time but forcing her to wait for doctors to open doors. Writer Shauna Cross doesn't exactly deliver a top script from the novel by Gayle Forman, relegating our actors to cheesy one-liners about love without really probing that connection beyond skin deep.

At the heart of these YA stories is the characters and their interaction in worlds they're just beginning to understand. Themes of love and struggle are common, which should produce ripe fruit in the form of solid character development. The trouble with Stay is that very little of this earns our tears or even respect. Moretz does the best she can with these many faults, making the production at least tolerable. At only 17, she represents the top of Hollywood's youth movement, but you can only do so much with crap. When Adam breaks out into a song that he wrote for her (although he promises that he can't write about things that make him happy), I felt my eyes roll unconsciously back into my head.

If I Stay tries to be the new Meet Joe Black and never touches it. Performances are solid but not overly memorable, and there's never a good enough case made for Mia to return to the land of the living or slip into the clichéd bright light that's just one more dull spot for this picture. It's the best of the YA films so far, but it's still not worth spending Summer movie dollars to endure.

If I Stay is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material and has a runtime of 106 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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