It’s not an easy choice to make: deciding whether to live or die, to stay or to go. Thankfully, most of us never have to make that choice — either death takes our decision-making capabilities from us, or by the time we have to choose, we no longer possess any decision-making capabilities at all.
In “If I Stay,” Chloe Grace Moretz (of “Kick-Ass” and “Carrie” fame) plays Mia, a 17-year-old Juilliard School hopeful who has to make that choice. After the rest of her family dies in a car crash, she has an out-of-body experience in which she has to decide whether to wake up from her coma alone or to never wake up again. Stuck in a world halfway between life and death, Mia leaves her comatose body like a ghost — unseen and unable to contact anyone but privy to everything happening in the hospital and able to move about on her own free will.
Mia has a lot to wake up for: a great passion and talent for classical cello, a loving extended family, a loyal best friend in Kim (Liana Liberato) and a ridiculously gorgeous musician boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley). But with the death of her close-knit musical family — her mother is an awesome riot grrrl punk feminist, her father played in a punk band and her little brother, Teddy, chants “Iggy Pop! Iggy Pop!” from the backseat when they’re deciding what music to play in the car — waking up is not so easy.
“I suppose it’s because staying is the harder path, so that’s the crux of the decision,” explains Gayle Forman, author of the novel “If I Stay,” in an interview with The Daily Californian. “There’s a line in the book — I think it’s something like: ‘I realize now dying is easy; living is hard.’ And the sort of default thing for her to do would be to slip away under those circumstances, and the harder thing to do — the more painful thing to do — would be to decide to stay, and she has to make that hard decision.”
It’s a difficult decision to make, but the story of Mia’s decision-making is one that director R.J. Cutler and screenwriter Shauna Cross have handled with the right amounts of delicacy and depth. The film is much more dramatic, suspenseful and emotionally-charged than the novel. And because so much of the story is about music in one way or another, the addition of a great soundtrack carries the film along remarkably. As was especially true in “Carrie,” Moretz enchants the camera, although her Mia can be irritating at times. Mia pre-coma is fairly uptight (at one point she ditches her lead-singer boyfriend’s concert to read a book outside the venue), and one hopes that if she does exit the coma, she’ll realize life is too short to limit herself like she always has.
In some respects, it was easier to play a more typical teenage role than a pint-sized assassin or a telekinetic adolescent, said Moretz in an interview with The Daily Californian, “but in other ways, it was harder playing a more ‘normal’ character — a little bit more difficult than playing the crazy person who lives with a super religious mother — and you kind of make up all this stuff and delve into this mutilated, kind of crazy made-up world. But with this, you have to stay really naturalistic, which I find is actually sometimes harder than playing the crazy character.”
Mia’s journey in “If I Stay” is undoubtedly a tearjerker, but it falls into some classic tropes that are so over-played they’re no longer interesting or believable: the wild, beautiful, widely desired boy falls for the stiff, “awkward” girl who subscribes to the theory that she’s “not like other girls.” Ultimately, though, the film wrestles with tough questions, and one does not feel like the protagonist’s life simply pings back to happiness at the end of the film. It’s realistic in its discussion of tragedy: “If I Stay” knows the value of a Pyrrhic victory all too well, but it fits.
Real life — and real death — is never easy, but “If I Stay” acknowledges it beautifully and faces it, like Mia, head on.
“If I Stay” opens on Friday, Aug. 22 at Shattuck Cinemas.
Contact Tyler Allen at [email protected].