If I Stay is a movie that asks whether an acceptance letter from a prestigious college can resurrect the dead. It's also a genteel teenage melodrama whose plates are galvanized from time to time by arresting, unexpectedly acute lines of dialogue or self-sacrificial acts.
Chloë Grace Moretz plays Mia, a well-spoken, well-adjusted teenager whose life is in flux: She seems happy, but she may have issues. However, before she — or the audience — can figure out exactly what those issues are, Mia, her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and her little brother (Jakob Davies) get into a serious car accident. Mia ends up in a coma, but her mind remains restless and active. The rest of the film follows Mia's disembodied spirit as it wanders barefoot around the same hospital where determined medical professionals work to save her and her family's lives. As she sees scenes from her life flash before her, she is faced with a simple choice: Does she return to her body and live out her life or go into the light and leave our world? And if she does remain on earth, which direction will her life take?
Like other YA novels-turned-movies like The Fault in Our Stars and The Hunger Games series, If I Stay's protagonist is a smart girl. Moretz is comfortable in this role; she played a cute, damaged smart girl in last year's underrated Carrie remake, and she played a cute, psychotic one in the Kick-Ass movies. She's a teen titan who shape-shifts like Ant-Man or Giant-Man. She's tiny and soft-voiced enough to disappear into the crowd or the shadows, but her heart-shaped face and elfin friskiness propel her into the center of a scene whenever she chooses.
At my other job, I see and work with smart girls like Mia all day long. It's funny; to many of their peers, these girls' intelligence, beauty, and sensitivity are intimidating and scary because they get their teenage kicks from unusual places. In a series of flashbacks, we see that, for Mia, it's the cello: she resists her parents' love of rock-and-roll and pursues classical music instead. Practicing Beethoven may limit her circle of friends, but she soon catches the eye of handsome, chivalrous rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley).
Prefabricated conflicts aside, Adam is a harmless, boring drip, just like Mia's insufferably tolerant and cool ex-punk-rock parents, who are always one straggler's dinner party away from their own Portlandia sketch. Yet in spite of this ballast, If I Stay floats above a tar pit of sentimentality for three-fourths of its run time, and when the sentimental goop finally bubbles up onscreen, it's not so bad.
This kind of shrugging praise probably makes If I Stay sound pretty run of the mill. It is, for the most part. But this kind of teenage tearjerker touches on more of the human experience in any given scene than most current blockbusters do in their entire run time. Few people can remember the first time they killed a man or saved the galaxy from Ronan the Accuser, but plenty of people can remember their first crush. When Mia sits down cross-legged on her bed and talks to Adam, who's climbed up the side of the house to see her, the scene evokes the thrilling fear of letting someone else into your life for the first time. Scenes like these are rousing accidents in movies like this, which are as glossy and visually exciting as the average USA Network family drama.