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If I Stay's unrealistic teens and cliches bomb, but the music — oh, that music — saves the movie

Alex Bentley
Chloe Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley in If I Stay
The creation of music is key to the success of If I Stay. Photo by Doane Gregory
Mireille Enos, Chloe Grace Moretz and Joshua Leonard in If I Stay
You'd be hard-pressed to find parents cooler than Mia's in If I Stay. Photo by Doane Gregory
Chloe Grace Moretz in If I Stay
The consciousness of Chloe Grace Moretz's character Mia spends most of the film roaming around the hospital after a devastating car accident. Photo by Doane Gregory

The 2014 summer season has already seen one highly anticipated film based on a sad-but-uplifting young adult book, The Fault in Our Stars. But there’s always room for another, a void now being filled by If I Stay.

Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a 16-year-old girl with a blessed life. Her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) not only love and support her unconditionally, but they’re also ultra cool. Her boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley), is the lead singer of an up-and-coming rock band, Willamette Stone. And Mia herself is supremely talented, having religiously played the cello since she was a young girl.

 The film captures that rare joy of creating music in the moment, with several original songs by the fictional Willamette Stone.

All of that threatens to come crashing down when she and her family are involved in a head-on car crash that puts Mia into a coma. Most of the film is played in flashback, as Mia’s consciousness replays her life to that point and tries to decide whether life is still worth living.

The film, directed by R.J. Cutler and written by Shauna Cross, threatens to derail early on, because it relies too much on cliches and hokeyness without properly setting up the film’s central drama. But as the film progresses, it gradually overcomes its early weaknesses.

Most of that is through sheer force of will. Cutler and Cross rectify their mistakes by being comprehensive in detailing all of Mia’s significant relationships. Her bond with her parents is deep and mostly free of the angst teenagers usually experience. She and Adam, while from different ends of the musical spectrum, appreciate the commitment it takes to reach their goals.

But it’s mostly the music that saves the film. Thanks to Mia, Adam and Mia’s dad, who used to be in a rock band himself, the film captures that rare joy of creating music in the moment. Although there are plenty of recognizable music cues, there are several original songs by the fictional Willamette Stone, along with other organic musical moments, that make the audience feel like a fly on the wall as great music is being made.

It also helps that both Moretz and Blackley took the time to learn how to look like real musicians. Cutler doesn’t have to use fancy editing to cut around sub-par skills; both actors have the finger work down pat, which lends the movie an extra dose of authenticity.

And their acting isn’t too shabby, either. As noted, the film does have its cheesy moments, but the earnestness of Moretz and Blackley, not to mention Enos, Leonard and Stacy Keach, who plays Mia’s grandfather, keeps the eye rolling in check.

If I Stay doesn’t earn every emotion that it tries to wring out of the audience, but after a rough start, it finds the right way more often than not.

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