If I Stay (R. J. Cutler, 2014)
R. J. Cutler is known for his documentaries; 2009’s The September Issue garnered raves on the festival circuit. Now he turns in his first big-screen feature, and a movie more different than The September Issue you are unlikely to find this year. If I Stay was adapted from Gayle Forman’s novel by Shauna Cross, whose output to date has been, well, somewhat underwhelming (Whip It, What to Expect When You’re Expecting). I’m not entirely sure what happened, but sticking this script to this director caused some form of magic to happen. How good is this magic? According to my spreadsheet, If I Stay is the three hundredth film I have seen so far in 2014. It is the fifteenth of those to get a rating of four stars or higher (as I write this opening paragraph, I am not yet sure if I’m going 4 or 4.5). Less than half of them have been features (the rest are shorts). This is, in a word, a stunning film.
Plot: Mia Hall (Let Me In‘s Chloë Grace Moretz) is a teenager. Her life is nothing special, save that it’s a few levels above the rest of us; she’s currently waiting to hear if she got in to Juilliard, her boyfriend’s band is the hottest thing in Oregon, she doesn’t hate her family and vice-versa. Everything is going along as usual until, on a routine car trip, her family is involved in an accident and Mia winds up in a coma. The remainder of the movie is told in split storylines—Mia flashes back to the events of the past year and a half, during her relationship with Adam (The Fifth Estate‘s Jamie Blackley), and we also see scenes from the hospital, as Mia wrestles with the question of whether to fight for her own life or let go and walk out the door into the ever-beckoning light.
My synopsis of the movie makes it sound horribly cheesy. (This is one of the many reasons I never get too far when I attempt fiction.) It is anything but. While it is, on the surface, a romance, there are two ways in which it is markedly different than most romances, both teen and adult, you’ve seen on the screen. First, it’s real. The chemistry between Moretz and Blackley sizzles, but there is the requisite awkwardness without the script ever going overboard. This is a textbook on how to write a first romance, Mary and Max-level stuff, in many ways. Second, while the romance is always there—the film’s first flashback is of Adam first taking notice of Mia as she practices the cello in her high school’s band room—the romance angle never overhwelms the movie’s other relationships. Mia’s family are well-developed, strong characters; The Tall Man‘s Jacob Davies, as Mia’s younger brother, turns in a star-making performance, while Stacy Keach may not have been this good since Southern Comfort in 1981. (Keach’s monologue about three-quarters of the way through the film is one of its high points.) In a lot of ways, this is about as good as movies about human relationships get. As a yardstick when I say that, I will also mention that as of this writing, seven of my top ten films of all time have the exploration of interpersonal relationships as either the main thrust or a major subplot: Before Night Falls, Hotaru no Haka, Closetland, Ikiru, Jeux Interdits, Persona, and The Manchurian Candidate.
Balancing out the great things about this movie (and I use the term “great” in its classical sense here) are two quibbles. One of them is probably minor no matter who you are. The second may be just as minor, or it may be something that hamstrings the entire movie for you. It is this second point that has been causing me so much consternation since I saw the movie last night. I will try and talk about both without spoilers, but if you’re not reading this at var.ev., imagine there’s a big stop sign right below these words.
First off is Mia’s audition. She nails it. It is sterling. Technically and conceptually flawless. She says in a later scene that she knows she has never played that well in her life. All of which leads to the somewhat inescapable conclusion that, during the time between her audition and finding out whether or not she gets into Juilliard, Mia should be supremely confident that there is no way the answer is no. And yet, her anxiety over whether she is getting into Juilliard is one of the defining facets of her character. There are reasonable explanations, but it wouldn’t have been too hard to underline any of them in the script without sacrificing the rest of Mia’s character. Second is the final fifteen seconds of the film. Without explicitly stating what happens, it is difficult to explain what it is about those final two shots that makes them, potentially, hamstring the entire film. (And I should add that, to be fair to Cutler and Cross, this seems to be a flaw in the source material that was simply transferred over to the film, but it is of course possible that it is handled better in the novel.) I will try by saying that where I was singing the film’s praises earlier for not being a typical cheesy romance, those final two shots undo a portion of that work—how much will probably depend on the individual viewer—by resolving the film in a typical-cheesy-romance way, and thus ultimately turning the movie into what it had spent the last hundred five minutes trying so deperately to avoid being, and largely succeeding in that goal.
Neither of these things, no matter how much the end of the film undercuts it for you, should be construed in any way as reasons not to see this movie. It is excellent on almost every level, and I cannot recommend it highly enough, whether you have a teenager to take with you or not (my wife and I went without one, and we were far from the only people in the theater without teens in tow). Do yourself a favor and take a pack of tissues with you; if this one doesn’t give you the sniffles, it’s possible you’re dead. ****