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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Chloe Grace Moretz must choose between life or death in "If I Stay," now playing.

Young adult weepie "If I Stay" scores enough feels to stay alive


On paper, there's not exactly a ton of reasons to be enthusiastic about "If I Stay." For one, it's merely the latest in the seemingly endless current string of YA adaptations, all fairly cut from the same cloth. More importantly, though, these mopey teen romantic tearjerkers usually try so desperately hard to make audiences have all of the feels. Between all of the melodrama and the clichés and the over-baked romance, though, the only feels I typically have involve a strong desire to fling myself into moving traffic.

That sensation, however, didn't happen while watching "If I Stay." Yes, the expected dopey melodrama finds its way into the movie, but it mostly plays second fiddle to an above average relationship drama, one with seemingly real characters (well, real for a teen romance) coping with seemingly real issues and problems. I didn't mind having to spend time with these dreamy young people, which is a lot more than I can say about anything Nicholas Sparks has done lately.

Admittedly, the first few minutes of "If I Stay" were not exactly reassuring. The audience is introduced to quiet young Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) – a high school student with an impressive affinity for the cello – and her cozily punk rock Portland family (led by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) at a breakfast featuring so much unnecessary blurry mist on the lens I had a desperate need to Windex the screen.

The only thing clogging up the movie more is tedious voiceover, with screenwriter Shauna Cross seemingly forgetting she's adapting a novel to a visual medium, not an audiobook. This is a common mistake for this glut of modern YA adaptations ("The Giver" had the same problem), terrified of letting go of the cherished source material's prose and desperate to explain our lead's inner most life and thoughts, neglecting the fact that we have fairly capable actors for that.

Anyways, back to the story. Mia's modest, Yo-Yo Ma sticker-covered world gets a shot in the arm when the school's resident too-cool rocker dude Adam (Jamie Blackley), impressed by her cello chops, asks her on a date. Of course, she says yes, wooed by his swoony cliché rock swagger and lame empty artsy babble that had my eyes threatening to roll straight out of my skull.

Things weren't looking promising.

But then something odd happened: As the movie went on and the lead relationship grew and developed, I found myself beginning to warm up to the two young lovers and "If I Stay" as a whole.

Much of that is because of the warm, naturally eclectic cast. Playing someone far different from the viciously insane tween superhero Hit Girl, Moretz makes for a rather lovely romantic center. She lets all of her emotions – from anxiety to swooning romance, then back to anxiety – play out on her face, and she gives her character's predictable evolution from bottled up bookworm to life-seizing teen some nice unique touches, like even just a tiny conversational lip twitch hinting at the teenage sexuality quietly bubbling underneath.

Luckily, she's surrounded by an equally adept supporting cast, namely Enos and Leonard (the latter you might recognize from his debut in "The Blair Witch Project"), which brings some nice spice to the potentially sappy love-soaked proceedings. Both bring charm and charisma to their roles as former punk rockers who happily grounded themselves and became parents – especially Enos, who's a welcome burst of spunky energy in each of her scenes. Together, they supply a sweetly human grace – both youthful and wise, even with merely quick glances – that the rest of "If I Stay" seems to follow.

Then there's the movie's resident swoon-worthy stud Blackley, who nicely sparks with Moretz. They're cute and sweet together, and luckily, Cross' screenplay and director R.J. Cutler give their relationship an unhassled pace, hitting natural bumps in the road for a young couple: the coming together of different worlds – in their case rock and classical music – the awkward attempts to find a place in each other's scene, the eventual tension about where people are going to college and lives floating off in different directions.

For long stretches, the title seems to refer to Mia's college choice, whether to stay at a nearby school with Adam and her family or to follow her cellist dreams to Julliard, albeit going solo. It's not exactly a new storyline for a teen romantic drama, but it's nice to see a love story focus more on real issues for young relationships and less on contrived drama.

That is, except for the moments when "If I Stay" becomes exactly about contrived drama.

While most of the movie is a fairly natural, sweet relationship story, spread sporadically throughout "If I Stay" is the gimmicky hook: Early on, Mia gets in a car wreck on a snowy day, leaving her immediate family dead and her in a coma. The movie then flits between following her romance with Adam and following her in-limbo ghost as it wanders around the hospital, watching her loved ones visit and trying to determine if she should come back to life or join her family in death.

There's some potential in the idea of having to choose between life and death, but "If I Stay" never really finds it. The visuals – like a symbolic light at the end of a hallway that ends up meaning nothing – appear Lifetime Movie of the Week-esque, the story becomes intensely melodramatic, the score is treacly and even the mostly strong Moretz seems a little lost playing a conflicted spirit.

Even the film itself doesn't seem to know what to do with this subplot: The switches between the hospital and the past are supposed to represent flashbacks, but it simply flips back and forth with no real reasoning or connective tissue between the two. The result feels clunky, like two unrelated movies – one modest, one mawkish – clumsily interwoven together.

The disheartening part is that I quite like that first movie. The performances are nice, the relationships – both romantic and familial – are easy and charming, and the script's sweet and occasionally truthful look at, as Mia's mom puts it, the inconvenience of falling in love at a young age is more honestly compelling than anything going on in the ER.

That's where I'm sure the tearjerking is expected to happen, but other than a speech from Stacy Keach (playing Mia's grandfather) that will break your heart 50 times over, it's transparently contrived, purely cornball and, in the end, bafflingly simplistic. The massive, literally life-and-death decision eventually comes down to "Joining my family that I love so dearly in the afterlife" or "OMG! My boyf played me a pwetty song!"

It's the kind of cliché, shortsighted, "Love is the only thing that matters, and my first high school boyfriend is my truest of true loves, obvi!" teen romance glurpy goop (that's a technical phrase) that, in most cases, the real world proves endlessly silly and downright delusional after a few years under one's belt. But hey kids, considering the other collective 70 minutes or so is pretty solid, I'll give you this one.



Theaters and showtimes for If I Stay
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