Review: ‘If I Stay’ (a life or death decision story)

The best tissue-ready feel-good family film about dying you’ll see all August.

While waiting for a decision that will affect the rest of her life, high school student Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) spends a snow day with her family cut short by a random traffic accident. As ambulances arrive to take victims to the hospital, Mia discovers she’s become a disembodied spirit caught between life and death. Family and friends grieving over the event prompt a recollection of Mia’s life leading up to the tragedy, but the ultimate decision belongs to her: will she go on living or move on?

Why put a film like this out in August? Counterprogramming maybe? The production has all the quirks of an awards contender: good acting, interesting characters, and a practical storytelling device mostly clear of obvious special effects. Yes, there’s a romantic angle here – young musicians in love – but it’s really about family: the one you’re born into and the close friends you collect along away. As a soul caught between worlds, characters interact via talk and the occasional touch, but only Mia seems aware. Never having read the Gayle Forman novel upon which the film is based, the director does an exemplary job of orchestrating the story’s highs and lows, culminating in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ending; everything that could happen afterward is clearly a different story, a bold choice for a final scene that works perfectly.

Is there anything Ms. Moretz can’t do on-screen? Here’s your ear worm: she’s only seventeen! From superhero work in Kick-Ass to scream-queen horror in Let Me In and her underrated Carrie remake, now she’s playing a mild-mannered cello player who gets blindsided with attention from a slightly older rocker; Adam is played by Jamie Blackley, who manages to hold his own against Moretz – yeah, she’s that good. Her punk rock mom Kat and dad Denny (played to the hilt by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) are the cool parents who end up raising kids better behaved than they ever were. Stacy Keach lends a bit of levity as Gramps – wow, “Mike Hammer” has gotten old. It’s a cast of likeable characters played by watchable actors in a story where the only bad guy is real life, especially when it isn’t fair.

Nitpicks? The up-and-coming punk band sounds awfully studio at every performance, especially when it’s supposed to be in makeshift venue full of screaming kids. Medical bits are mostly nondescript, a bit of a crutch when plot-point trauma needs to occur here and there, but it’s forgivable. This film is being billed as young adult, but it’s truthfully a bit more universal as a coming of age kind of story; it’s both more and less dire than The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and that’s saying something. Fans of the teen romance scene will likely cry their eyes out while lovers of the paranormal will get far less for their money, but how anyone can ignore a rising star like Chloë is beyond the scope of this review: she’s kind of awesome.

(a three star recommendation out of four)

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