It’s rarely a good idea to walk into a film with preconceived notions, but it’s rarely something a person can help unless they’re able to go completely blind. But, unless you’re at a festival, it’s hard to do that these days given the advertising saturation film culture. Even if you’re not intentionally surrounding yourself with it, chances are, it’ll still be in the background. So, that being said, I walked into If I Stay, a YA weepy movie based on a YA weepy novel by Gayle Forman, with average to low expectations. I thought, At worst, it’ll be forgettable. And somehow, I was so, so wrong.
Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a cello prodigy, making her way into the world with her music, with a punk rocker boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), when she ends up in a car crash putting her into a coma. She has an out of body experience, watching as her loved ones and doctors struggle to save her life.
Once again, Moretz fails to prove she has any acting abilities. Oddly enough, every line of dialogue she speaks, in this or any production, seems at once overwrought and under practiced. After a while, the strain and lack of subtlety she manages to inject into everything she does in the film becomes amusing in a way that one would desperately hope that she’s in on the joke. But, alas.
The film is, at its heart, designed to be “misery porn”; the kind of piece of work that is created to tug, no, yank at your heartstrings and leave you in a blubbering puddle of tears. And yet, the film is astoundingly stupid, to unaware of its own flaws and faulty gears to even be convincingly manipulative. It feels literally too stupid to know how to get the audience to cry, undermining every “correct” emotional beat by a line of dialogue that rings false and artificial. It’s frustratingly stupid, dumb as bricks to a point where it’s not so much that the characters are unreliable, but the fact that someone would write characters like the ones in the film is unfathomable.
The film never actually engages in contemplating the very question of its title: ostensibly, Moretz’s Hall is supposed to choose between living after the tragic accident and exist as a support system to her damaged boyfriend or die and go into the light. The audience is never really given any time to think about those ideas for themselves; instead we’re treated to flashbacks as exposition.
For, one of the film’s greatest failings is its entire structure. It isn’t necessarily bad that the film is told primarily in flashback, it’s the fact that the flashback has little to no bearing on the scenes taking place in the present. The relationship between memory and identity is absolutely never explored, making the film seem disjointed. The flashbacks seem to exist on their own and the present scenes in yet another film. Why are these flashbacks actually important? Why do they matter? I don’t know. With the exception of one or two details, half of the film could be scrapped and very few emotional beats would change or not exist.
And while we hear a lot “about” music, the complex relationship between music, identity, and memory is also never explored. It’s ”talked about”. The film, whose script can be blamed upon by Shauna Cross, does a lot of telling, but you’ll be damned if the film actually shows it. One only gets the impression that Mia Hall is passionate about music because she says she is, yet so little of that is reflected in the film. In terms of how music shapes a person, that doesn’t seem to ever actually come across. I’m not a musician, but, like most people, music plays a very important role in my life, and for people who do it for a living, that effect is tenfold. And though we’re constantly told that through textbook boring narration from Moretz and the ever present expository dialogue, such self-actualization through music is never allowed to unfold naturally, for her or any character.
Her boyfriend says he’s “bad at writing about things that make him happy”, but none of the songs he sings are really of the punk rock vein. They sound more like a tame, lazy mix of pop lyrics set against a very sleepy person’s idea of what punk sounds like. They may not be overtly chipper, but they don’t have any kind of roughhewn quality about them. It’s aggravatingly polished in a way that punk sets itself up to not be. When Blackley sings, it’s like he’s a marble statue where slabs of stones should be. And it all feels flat.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the film is the fact that it seemed to be full of dead air. In only a single scene (Mia’s audition) was there any kind of passion or energy that, had it be stretched out through all or most of the film, would have made it bearable. But it felt flat in a way that seemed alienating. The most basic thing for a concert/club scene in a movie, good or bad, is the unconscious awareness of the sound design. People are shouting over one another, the music is loud, there’s rustling and people having a good time. The space feels lived in. But in If I Stay, there’s nothing there except the music the band is playing and light murmurs of what feels like unfinished sound design. It felt dead, ironically enough.
This is documentary filmmaker RJ Cutler’s first jump into narrative, but it doesn’t really feel like it. He made one of my favorite docs The September Issue, which is basically the real life version of The Devil Wears Prada. But what’s admirable about that doc, as perhaps with good examples of the form in general, is its investment in observing its subjects and making them compelling pretty much of their own accord. But that is also absent here. It almost feels like the film, in every aspect, was aiming for the lowest common denominator audience member, where name dropping Beethoven and making second grader worthy Yo Yo Ma jokes is cool and making the characters both banal and bafflingly immature is the norm.
All the while, it’s unintentionally one of the funniest films of the year. The horrendous and pandering dialogue and Moretz’s contrived acting often seems to border on self-parody, but without the self-awareness. The laziness of the screenwriting, the laziness of the production. So much potential, from exploration of memory, identity, music, the After Life, etc. is squandered and it leaves me feeling so much angrier than a film that was mediocre would have. But worse, If I Stay treats its audience as if it’s full of morons.