Review: If I Stay (2014)

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Director: R.J. Cutler
Screenwriter: Shauna Cross
Based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, Stacy Keach, Lauren Lee Smith, Liana Liberato & Jakob Davies
Runtime: 106 min // Certificate: 12a


I feel like a right callous fucker for branding a film about a teenage girl who loses her entire family in a car crash as one of the most reprehensible movies of the year, but that’s exactly what it is. Predicated on the (unfortunately accurate) notion that all it takes to make your audience cry is overbearing music, a floppy-haired love interest and a bunch of “humorous” #firstworldproblems to ease the immediate pain, If I Stay is the epitome of white, upper middle-class schmaltz masquerading as something altogether more meaningful and profound.

Based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman (which I haven’t read, and which might well be a masterpiece for all I know), R.J. Cutler’s mawkish, manipulative and wholly inauthentic adaptation is a gutless, haughty and condescending affair that practically harangues its disillusioned audience into caring about people who have all the personality of a cadaver. If you don’t care about these people – and how could you not, as family members seem to kick the bucket once every few minutes, just to keep you on your toes – then you must be some sort of monster who doesn’t know what it means to live or to love. That we are given no reason to care, no characterisation to relate to, and no actual “plot” to invest in outside a very muddled, half-baked idea about a girl having an outer-body experience matters not one jot to Cutler. He wants you to cry, nothing else, and he’s willing to dedicate an entire 106 minute film to the pursuit of that goal.

If you think the basic premise of If I Stay is interesting, then prepare to be sorely disappointed. The trailer suggests that this is a film about a comatose girl – Mia, played by Moretz (Kick-Ass) – who is forced to make a choice; wake up an orphan and live an uncertain life with her (frankly appalling) boyfriend Adam (Blackley; The Fifth Estate) or drift off peacefully into the arms of Death, and be potentially reunited with her family. What it’s actually about, however, is something much more tedious. The fateful car crash that robs Mia of everyone she loves happens within the first fifteen minutes, and the rest of the film then plays out in the form of flashbacks, awkwardly narrated by the ghost-cum-spirit of Mia, who wanders around and bemoans how awful her perfect, rich white girl life was before the tragedy, never mind after it. It’s a saccharine love story with a gimmick and nothing else. There’s no dilemma, no moral quandary and certainly no philosophical wrangling about whether death is really the end. No, it’s just Mills & Boon with a twist, and a particularly heavy-handed yet underused twist at that.

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If I Stay wasn’t designed to appeal to me, but that doesn’t make its influence any less problematic. Cutler and Cross reduce each and every character to a one-dimensional husk so that they can then beat them with the tear stick and fill them with false emotions. Mia likes two things – Adam and the cello – and she spends 106 minutes pining over both of them. What little actual respect or love she seems to have for her dead family is belittled by the fact that Moretz seems to inject wholesale the lifelessness of her comatose character it into her tawdry performance, while Cross’s chronic inability to elevate her screenplay beyond the crude ramblings of a motivational poster mean that even when Stacy Keach (Nebraska), who plays Mia’s grandfather, is trying his damnedest to bring a bit of much-needed talent to the proceedings, he’s lumbered with some of the most laughable dialogue imaginable.

It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that Adam is a complete and utter tit. It’s difficult to care about a relationship when one element of it is selfish to the extent that it borders on abuse, yet the film continually pretends that he is just a nice guy who is in love with Mia and just wants for her to be happy. Puh-lease, pass me the sick bucket. He’s a prick, simple as, and no amount of lingering shots of him playing his guitar and running his fingers through his hair or writing his oh-so-serious love songs will change that. Mia isn’t much better, though at least she’s a bit more aware of her failings. Next to him, she’s a paragon of saintliness and likeability, but the simple fact is that both characters are hateful and thus I couldn’t care less about the sterile predicament that they’re facing.

If I Stay is trash – detestable, monstrous, disingenuous trash, with all the nuance of a car to the face. It’s everything I hate about modern romance cinema. It’s stuck in the same insincere vein as films like The Fault in Our Stars (though that, to its credit, can at least boast of having decent performances and an ending that isn’t completely craven and cloying), and it exists not on the strength of its plot or its characters but on the sheer will of its director and writer to drag tears from your jaded eyes.

If you stay? Yeah, I’d rather you didn’t if it’s all the same to you…