Love’s Limbo’s Lost
It makes sense that for most of If I Stay, a weepy teen tragedy romance, Chloe Grace Moretz exists in limbo, teetering between life and death. So many young actresses don’t get to be the smartest people in the room, but Moretz has thrived on playing precocious, mature, intelligent characters, usually on another wavelength from her peers. Whether it’s giving Joseph Gordon Levitt girl advice in 500 Days of Summer or slicing up baddies as the ten-year-old Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass, she has trouble connecting to the people around her.
That is director R.J. Cutler’s thesis here in multiple ways. But now, as a 17-year-old, Moretz has graduated from precocious to prodigious. She plays Mia Hall, a highly gifted cellist who lives on the fringes of Portland and of her family. Mom (Mireille Enos) and dad (Joshua Leonard) were a former riot girl and punk rock drummer but sacrificed into suburbia to raise a family, which includes her younger brother that caught their music bug, too. That’s just angry noise to Mia, who prefers classical meditations and suites, aspiring to go to Julliard to continue her focused playing regimen.
A snowy day car accident on an Oregonian highway puts those plans on hold. We don’t see a crash we just witness the fiery travesty that’s taken place. Mia initially emerges just fine, begging emergency crews for answers, until she sees her injured body being stretched into an ambulance. Barefoot, invisible, and in a white gown, she quickly realizes her purgatorial comatose reality. If there’s any confusion, it’s cleared up by her own narration, and then a doctor nicely explains the film’s title by her bedside. Living or dying is up to her, a decision made more challenging with her family out of the picture.
But this dilemma, based on the Young Adult novel by Gayle Forman, wouldn’t have the same gravity without a boy. So as Mia hovers by her body’s hospital room, she recalls the beginnings of her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), who needed just one look at her soft gaze reading music to ask her out. He’s also a musician– though more closely aligned with her parents– the front man for an alt rock band with dreamy looks and voice. His band has already garnered a record deal and Pacific Northwest fame, however much that amounts to, seems imminent.
The film, adapted by Shauna Cross, ping pongs to the hospital to check Mia’s monitored pulse and then back to the blossoming relationship. There is an easiness within the couple’s interactions, mostly because Adam doesn’t feel human so much as a projected hunk of perfection. Eventually a darker side emerges, which is surprisingly stark given our glowing first look. She gets an audition for Julliard while his band has started a more extensive tour that moves him away for weeks at a time. He can’t imagine leaving his coniferous corridor but she’s serious about springing for New York if accepted.
The tension relies on the quality and devotion of their music, which must be credible and credibly played. Blackely has a relaxed voice for a rocker but is energized enough to make Mia want to mosh. But portraying a finely tuned musician like Mia is more difficult. Her narration demonstrates her talents as much, if not more, than her actual playing does. Occasionally we see inside her insular world, fiddling out a cliché Bach suite and then assiduously rehearsing more prestigious work. That’s in preparation for her Julliard audition, which feverishly flows out of her.
Part of the beauty in that scene is Mia’s exasperation afterward. One of her traits is self-doubt around receiving praise, which becomes a taxing attribute. But after her performance she can’t help but smile, pursing her lips, which now seems to be Moretz’s iconic facial gesture. If that mouthed twinge doesn’t carry this movie, it certainly elevates a few scenes, especially as the relationship becomes more physical in some times silly ways.
That those specific acts don’t feel like unrequited love affairs is mostly to do with the charm of Mia’s parents, sarcastic and laid back, sometimes out of touch but always supportive, as is her friend Kim (Liana Liberato), who waits patiently in the hospital wing. They bring a plausibility and color to characters normally saved for peripheral encounters. Two of those kinds do happen near the end, but with Mia’s grandfather, played graciously by Stacey Keach. They serve as the film’s emotional, most authentic offerings and begin the third act poking at your tear ducts.
So what doe Mia have to live for? The kaleidoscope of memories and music evoke It’s a Wonderful Life, offering reasons to keep breathing amidst the circumstances. These YA movies use dramatic events like this to clothe some of life’s difficult choices. They widen the spectrum of emotion. What might have been just frustration and gloominess turns into sobbing and snot, so that moving across the country has the same magnitude as reaching for the inviting white light. In this movie’s case, it’s a very lyrical hypnosis.