To your average teenager, everyday trials can take on the grandeur of world-ending tragedy. This screen adaptation of Gayle Forman’s YA novel takes that pretense one step further, hamfistedly equating the romantic woes of cello prodigy Mia (Moretz) with a post-mortal limbo from which her stranded spirit observes the aftermath of a fateful car accident, a crash that put her in a coma while claiming the lives of Mom (Enos), Dad (Leonard), and her younger brother (Davies).
Earlier this summer, The Fault in Our Stars struck the proper teen-tearjerker chords, suggesting that a short-lived love is better than none at all and incorporating welcome warmth and humor whenever possible. By contrast, Mia’s parallel dilemmas of choosing between Juilliard or rocker-on-the-road Adam (Blackley) – and whether or not to go into that great white light – feel awfully trite. Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) lays on the hazy alt-rock soundtrack and sappy flashbacks while writer Shauna Cross (the underrated Whip It) ensures that Mia has endless navel-gazing voiceovers to share as she scurries down hospital halls and futilely pleads with oblivious family and friends.
We’re spared the otherworldly garishness and tonal whiplash of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, but this fusion of milquetoast romance and maudlin handwringing remains beholden to a questionable degree of wish fulfillment. (Not to knock Blackley’s suitably angsty performance, but even Adam’s daddy issues seem dreamy.) Much of the emotional burden falls on Moretz, a talented young actress in her first romantic lead. More comfortable subverting the teenage ideal as killer kids in the Kick-Ass films, Let Me In, and last year’s Carrie remake, or scheming starlets on 30 Rock and the upcoming Clouds of Sils Maria, it turns out that dressed-down earnestness doesn’t suit her nearly as well.
However, just when If I Stay seems like nothing more than a showcase for hollow heartache, an ancillary player will bring some honest feeling to the table, whether it’s Leonard and Enos’ punk-rocker parents offering hard-earned advice or Stacy Keach delivering tearful guidance as Mia’s distraught grandfather. Their few genuine moments throw into even sharper relief the tedious trappings which surround this, your average teenage tragedy.