Young couples in movies are customarily given obstacles to overcome, but If I Stay seems unnecessarily cruel in its dramatic contrivances. Most of the film unfolds in the flashbacks that follow a terrible car accident; all the members of a family have been seriously injured, and our narrator, Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz), is in a coma. She’s also walking around the hospital as a sort of astral projection, looking down at her unconscious self and listening to everybody else talking about her. Mia’s a promising cellist, with a shot at attending Juilliard after she graduates from her Portland high school. The only problem is that that would take her away from her boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley), the lead singer of a neo-punk band, who plans to keep gigging around Oregon. Because who would want to take a punk band to New York City?
The movie puts a great deal of dramatic weight on this Juilliard decision, perhaps because somebody realized that despite the gravity of the car accident hanging over everything, the script doesn’t actually have much in the way of suspense for the flashbacks. Mia’s got the world’s coolest parents, who can advise their classical-music-minded daughter about whether she should go to a Halloween party as Debbie Harry or Patti Smith. (They’re warmly played by Mirielle Enos of The Killing and Joshua Leonard from Humpday.) Mia and Adam get along great, and he has few flaws as musician or movie dream-catch. Even Mia’s brother isn’t as bratty as little brothers are expected to be. Director R.J. Cutler gets a few pleasantly quirky line readings out of his cast, although there’s not much Moretz (the ineffable Hit-Girl from the Kick-Ass movies) or Blackley can do with their plywood roles.
Aside from the movie’s structure, the film is most notable for its grimness. Based on a popular 2009 YA novel by Gayle Forman and scripted by Whip It scribe Shauna Cross, If I Stay is blunt about mortality when it comes to the accident’s toll. That makes it a tough spin as a summer movie, which could explain why some major revelations about death are given away in the trailer. These days trailers are like “trigger warnings” to prepare unsuspecting audiences—everybody needs to know the worst beforehand, lest the experience of actually watching a movie be too vivid. This means only the very ending is really in doubt. The finish is well executed, but you can probably guess it from here. Opens Fri., Aug. 22 at Varsity and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 107 minutes.