Now, I know I’m not supposed to go into a film with any preconceived notions. I’m supposed to judge each movie fairly
without bias. Well, usually I do my best to follow this unwritten law and sometimes I get rewarded for my efforts. Once in a great while, I find myself pleasantly surprised by a film, which I’m pretty sure I’m going to loath, but end up liking immensely. That being said, when it comes to movies in the romantic genre, it’s very rare that this EVER happens.
But it’s not impossible.
For example, last year’s surprising “About Time” might have been advertised as a paint-by-numbers “chick flick,” but it actually turned out to be a cleverly-written rom-com featuring a pair of fresh, youthful leads (Domhnall Gleason and Rachel McAdams), a fantastic supporting cast (including Bill Nighy), and a unique premise based around time travel. I’m not saying it was on my “top ten” list or anything like that, but it WAS closer to the bottom than it was to the top that’s for sure.
Then you have “If I Stay.”
Contrary to films like “About Time” (and countless others), which contribute to the evolution of the genre, “If I Stay” takes the cowardly approach. It collects pieces from other more familiar films and mashes them together to form a formulaic, manipulative, far from gentle tearjerker. Throughout cinematic history, romantic movies have attempted to tug at your heartstrings with classic tactics like the usage of sudden swells in the musical score OR rotating, bird’s eye view camera shots that depict characters going through emotionally charged moments.
When it comes to “If I Stay,” if a scene or sequence has been effective in previous romantic movies, you can bet that it’s in this film. This movie doesn’t just tug at your heartstrings, it grabs them and flings you around the room. No joke, I felt like I was a human version of one of those giant swing rides from a huge theme park. Needless to say, It was pretty far from subtle.
Every character behaved exactly what they were supposed to in order to move the story along. This isn’t necessarily always a negative thing, but in the case of “If I Stay,” it just adds to its unoriginal nature.
However, it’s through no fault of the cast. Like “About Time,” it does feature a fairly talented group, which includes up-
and-coming stars Chloe Grace Moretz (“Carrie,” “Kick-Ass”), Mireille Enos (cult TV fave “The Killing,” “World War Z”) and Jamie Blackley (“Snow White and the Huntsman,” “The Fifth Estate”). It also features a few industry vets such as Stacy Keach (who was coincidentally in TWO films I saw this week) and Joshua Leonard (“The Blair Witch Project”). Trust me, it’s not the actors that sunk this one, it’s the material they were working with.
The screenplay by Shauna Cross (“What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” “Whip It”) is fairly pedestrian at best, but I can’t imagine that the sickly-sweet novel it’s based on (by Gayle Forman), could be much better. While Cross and Forman do a decent job at building up the various characters, they turn up to be little more than genre stereotypes once the dust settles.
Moretz, who did such a fabulous job in her role as Hit Girl in the “Kick-Ass” series (especially in part 2), as well as providing one of the few shining moments in the ill-advised “Carrie” remake, seems to have taken a step back with her portrayal of the shy and guarded Mia in “If I Stay.” After blessing audiences with plenty of spicy moments in the two, aforementioned films, her performance here is bland and unseasoned.
Again, she wasn’t given much in terms of the screenplay, but she seems out of place as the romantic lead. Maybe it’s the fact that, aesthetically, she looks like a high school freshman playing the role of a high school senior. I think Moretz is at her best when she’s playing the weird girl (like in her role as the tortured, little girl vampire in “Let Me In”), not the object of desire.
When Moretz was playing Mia as the shy, introverted loner cellist, it worked. It’s just when she had to transform into a passionate adolescent with love (and possibly sex) on the brain, it didn’t. Maybe it’s just that I still see Moretz as a little girl, because she’s grown up on the screen in front of my very eyes. This is the unavoidable problem that many child actors face, especially females — getting older. It’s happening to Dakota Fanning. It’s happening to AnnaSophia Robb. And now it’s happening to Moretz. Can these young girls — who’ve matured right in front of our very eyes — turn around and successfully slide into roles as young women? It works for some (just ask Jodie Foster), but for others (just ask Tatum O’Neal) not so much. I hope that Moretz has more Foster in her than O’Neal.
As for the rest of the cast… Blackley delivers as Adam — the passionate, yet mysterious man of Mia’s dreams. He succeeds
at playing both the cool, misunderstood rock-and-roller and the sensitive, caring poet. He looks at ease in both worlds and the music that his character produces is genuinely catchy stuff. In fact, Adam and his band’s performances are some of the more enjoyable segments of the film. Blackley makes the most of every moment he has, even when the lines he’s given are pure, syrupy dreck. While I have a bunch of gripes regarding the character of Adam and some of the choices he makes (for instance: why would a good-looking, teenage musician like Adam put all his eggs into the “Mia basket” and not fool around?), I can’t find too many flaws with Blackley himself. Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a star in the making.
Mia’s parents (Enos and Leonard) are a different story. These characters are absolutely dreadful and borderline offensive. It’s as if screenwriter Cross has combined every stereotype regarding aging hipsters and threw it into the mold for Mia’s Mom and Dad. They wear Sonic Youth and Ramones t-shirts, they purposefully teach their young son (Mia’s “cool” little bro played by Jakob Davies) to listen to Iggy Pop (“Nothing after 1978,” the dad says), and they utter words like “dude” A LOT. To tell you the truth, it kind of pissed me off. Is this how the normal world sees people my age? Are we all just big, fat, bloated shells of our former selves trying desperately to hang onto our glory days?
Okay fine, maybe we are, but you didn’t have to hold up such a big, shiny mirror and shock the hell out of us. Sorry, maybe I’m just sad that I secretly thought these characters were special, until I realized that they were decidedly normal and boring. It kind of hurt to see my generation reduced to nose rings and lackadaisical stances on curfew is all.
The main storyline is not a huge issue either. The themes are pretty basic, but they’re time-tested. Young love with a tragic twist is not exactly the most original plot, but it delivers quite effortlessly. Even though the chemistry between Blackley (who looks like he’s in his mid-20’s) and Moretz (who looks like she’s 14) is rather unsettling on a visual level, their characters have a balanced chemistry together onscreen otherwise. I believe that these two are in love and truly adore each other.
The biggest problem is that the tragedy happens too soon. For some reason, it occurs at the BEGINNING of the film,
before we have a chance to really care about the characters enough to properly feel the pain and heartache. After the tragic moment, the story is told through a jumpy, odd, flashback-to-flash forward-to-flash sideways technique, which detached me from any blinding emotions I was SUPPOSED to experience.
Oh, and don’t get me started on the whole “Lovely Bones” angle regarding the “spirit” of Mia wandering around the hospital while her friends and family come to visit her. I HATED this plot device and found it rather annoying. It was maddening to see Moretz have to drop to her knees and breakdown into a ghostly crying fit after finding out some truly bad news. Plus, it didn’t help that documentarian R.J. Cutler (“The World According to Dick Cheney”) seemingly had a tough time making the jump to directing feature films. Every emotional moment seemed forced and the quality actors might have tried their best, but their characters ultimately fell flat.
Well, well, well. One of these days, a romantic films is going to blow my socks off and convert me from a grumpy old man to a happy-go-lucky, sappy (sorry, I have to sue this particular word) dude. “If I Stay” is not that film. In fact, I’m pretty sure that those of you who love romantic movies might not be too happy with “If I Stay” either.
The bottom line is: you’ve seen all of this done before and, more importantly, you’ve seen it done much better.