“Live for love” reads the tagline of teen romantic drama If I Stay. With an introduction like that you should either be reaching for a bucket or rolling your eyes so intensely people can actually hear it. Yet a shitty tagline does not a bad movie maketh. Although If I Stay might suffer from a marketing campaign that sells it as ‘The Notebook before the main characters ended up in a home’ there’s a lot more to this bonafide weepy than meets the cry. Part A Christmas Tale and part Just Like heaven, surprisingly plenty to like about this touching and genuinely heartbreaking drama that is undoubtedly quite the white wash.
Set in Middle Earth for hipsters – Portland, Oregon – the film follows Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is somewhat of a classical music prodigy despite growing up the daughter of punk rock drummer Denny (Joshua Leonard) and riot gurrrl Kat (Mireille Enos). Quiet and reserved, she catches the eye of indie rocker and fellow musician Adam (Jamie Blackley) who goes to her highschool. Despite their very different worlds – she’s more Beethoven and he’s more Baby Shambles – the pair fall in love, deeply. As the pair grow up and apart (literally, as his band takes off and he begins to tour) cracks in their relationship begin to show. Sound simple so far, yes? Well, no. All of this is told in non-linear flashbacks as at the beginning of the film we learn Mia is actually the survivor of a terrible car accident which has left her in a coma. As she begins to process her life and the out-of-body experience she’s having, she has to decide if it’s worth staying for a much more difficult life than the one she had before or if she should go.
Directed by R.J. Cutler (who sounds more like a quarterback than a filmmaker), the man behind doco The September Issue and surprisingly great TV series Nashville is well equipped for the material. It’s nothing that tests him as a filmmaker and he’s almost invisible, which is perfect as the two things that need to shine are the performances and the music. Moretz has always been like a young Scarlett Johansson in that she’s an extremely charismatic performer, with her beauty often distracting from what impressive acting chops she actually has. She’s convincing as Mia, a sweet and shy girl who has a passion simmering beneath the surface. Yet it’s her leading man – Blackley – that steals the show. Of course he’s good looking (this isHollywood), but there’s more to him than a head of indie rocker hair and some skinny-leg jeans. He’s an immensely talented performer who breathes actual life into the token boyfriend role and adds complexities that could have very easily not been there. Besides his thespian skills, he’s an incredibly gifted musician. With songs written specifically for the film, he plays and sings them with such heart it’s simply mesmerising to watch. The parents also deserve a nod well and truly, with Leonard showing just how far he’s progressed from his debut in The Blair Witch Project. He manages to be nurturing and cool, while at the same time a wise yet not cliché father figure who delivers lines like: “Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you.” Given her impressive career so far, it’s unsurprising how fantastic Enos is as the cool, feminist, rocker mum. She’s essentially Jessica Chastain’s character from Mama all grown up and she’s the source of some of the most touching moments in the film. It’s the combined effectiveness of the cast’s performances that make the events of the film so heartbreaking.
If the performances are the glue, then the music is the glitter. From Denny’s grimey punk rock days to Mia’s classical solos and finally Adam’s indie gems, there’s an eclectic mix of styles and sounds in If I Stay. Yet it’s the combination of them that makes everything just work. It’s like a musical in the way that songs are used to describe exactly how a character is feeling in that specific moment. Nowhere is that clearer than in the movie’s best scene – a campfire scene, if you can spare it. Dozens of family friends are gathered at the Hall’s for a Sunday potluck dinner which results in a sing along around the campfire which should be cheesy but somehow becomes memorable. As Mia accompanies Adam on the cello, while he sings and strums away on his guitar, other guests pick up a banjo or even just the tune as they sing one of the film’s original songs, Today. It’s a goosebump moment. That song – from Adam’s fictional band Williamette Stone – and several others are included on what is arguably one of the best original soundtracks of the year so far (behind Guardians Of The Galaxy, naturally). Listen to Ane Brun and Linnea Olsson’s cover of Halo and tell me I’m wrong.
If I Stay’s big flaw, however, is it’s lack of diversity. There is literally only TWO people in the entire movie who aren’t Caucasian. Given the bustling hub that is Portland, this is neither accurate or freakin’ good enough for an audience that is sick of having white stereotypes shoved down their throat. One of the multicultural characters is an Asian girlfriend of one of the band members, who is in dozens of scenes yet only has two lines. Meanwhile, the remaining character fits the ‘mystical Negro ‘ stereotype and is an African American nurse who whispers messages of positivity and blessings into Mia’s unconscious ear. That’s her entire role. Obviously filmmakers want to be faithful to the source material, but this is also 2014. Why couldn’t have Adam been cast as a black actor? Or Mia’s sturdy and reliable best friend? Heck, even one of her parents? There’s no excuse for why someone should have to sit through two hours of cinema and see only two people who represent majority of what is out there in the real world everyday.
It’s a movie that could be retitled ‘White People In A Coma’. And yet, If I Stay is a creeper. From the authentic family feel created by the impressive cast to one of the best soundtracks of the year, it’s a film you never expect to like but end up doing so regardless.
Maria Lewis – follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.