How to Fix a Film Like 'If I Stay'

by Bill Gibron

25 August 2014

This YA tearjerker could have worked, and it should have worked, but it had it's own demise already written into its DNA.
cover art

If I Stay

Director: R.J. Cutler
Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Stacy Keach

(New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Pictures)
US theatrical: 22 Aug 2014 (General release)

When the returns came in for The Fault in Our Stars, two studios must have been beyond happy. 20th Century Fox financed the film version of John Green’s popular YA novel, and were glad to see their old fashioned disease of the week tearjerker bring in over $48 million at the box office opening weekend. By the time the end of Summer rolls around, it will easily have banked more than $271 million worldwide.

This should have been good news for Warner Bros. as well, seeing as how it bet on another YA weeper, If I Stay, to further commercialize, and therefore capitalize on the trend. Prior to the 22 August release date, industry pundits had it easily winning the box office war, what with the nine years in the making Sin City sequel and a faith-based football title, When the Game Stands Tall, it’s only real competition. Surely it could mimic The Fault in Our Stars‘s success while beating back any lingering love for a bunch of mutant ninja turtles and a dancing tree creature and his pals.
That was not the case, however. When Sunday’s tallies were totaled up, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy reclaimed the top spot, while those butt-kicking amphibians landed at number two. If I Stay struggled to see third place, its $16.4 million barely bested by the turtles $16.7. Said performance was poor, especially when you consider that many who make their living predicting such things had the Chloe Grace Moretz vehicle earning somewhere in the mid- to late $20s. Even more disconcerting was the fact that, again, The Fault in Our Stars made a little less than three times that amount when it bowed.

So, naturally, the handwringing and the blame gaming has begun. Some are suggesting the late August release date as the culprit, while others argue that Guardians of the Galaxy’ status as a legitimate phenomenon (by this time next week it will be the number one movie, domestically, for the year) prevented If I Stay from breaking out. However, the real problem behind the failure can be seen up on the screen, not along the bottom line. Two main issues resulted in the film’s failure to resonate, two problems that, if fixed, could have helped the film find a friendlier response.

The trouble begins right at the very top, with the casting. While she is still just 17, Chloe Grace Moretz is quickly becoming a terrific young actress. She can easily essay any genre, from action (Kick-Ass) to drama (Hick), indie comedy ( (500) Days of Summer) to outright horror (Let Me In). She has both inner and outer beauty, showing depth and distinction even when a part (Dark Shadows) undermines her efforts.

Indeed, Moretz is many things this early in her budding career, but one of them is not dour/dorky. It’s just inherently hard for her to play an unpopular wallflower. Her casting as Carrie White in the misguided remake of the Stephen King/Brian DePalma classic proved this. So does her work in If I Stay.

Again, she is more than up to the acting challenge. Even with a cello double, one can easily believe that she is a shy, classical music obsessed high schooler who is socially awkward. What is hard to swallow is her status as some manner of pariah. When we are first introduced to her character, Mia Hall, we are informed that this otherwise gifted musician is not considered “cool” because of her choice of instrument. We are also led to believe that she has never really had any interest from the boys in her class. Someone who looks like Chloe Grace Moretz? Seriously?

In addition, though she has an ex-local rock star for a father and an incredibly hip mother, Mia feels like an outsider among her family and their friends…even though they do everything they can to include her. Granted, some of these flaws come from the source, but director R.J. Cutler did himself and his story a disservice by putting Hit-Girl in this role. Ms. Moretz just can’t successfully be seen as nerdy. She has too much inner light to be diminished. Had a more stereotypical “geek type” been cast, someone like Sissy Spacek back in the day, Mia’s transformation, and her turmoil, would be that much more palpable.

And then there is the narrative, perhaps the biggest problem in all of If I Stay. For those of you who have not seen the film, consider this a massive SPOILER warning. We will be discussing all aspects of the plot, so if you don’t want the overall experience ruined for you, leave now.

Okay, if you’re still reading, you clearly don’t care about the storyline or its “twists”. In If I Stay, Mia and her family are involved in a fatal car accident. It happens within the first ten minutes of the movie starting. Her mother and father die instantly, and her little brother Teddy, who initially survives, later passes away as well.

In the meantime, Mia is in a coma and is told that only she can decide whether she lives, “stays”, or dies, “leaves”. This puts our heroine in the title quandary. Even though she has had a heavy year long love affair with up and coming rock musician Adam Wilde, their recent breakup has the lost in limbo girl confused. If she lives, she will be without a family and a boyfriend. If she leaves, she goes onto some manner of indescribable yet peaceful afterlife. Now, none of this is really a spoiler, per se, since the trailers made it very clear that this is the theme of Gayle Forman’s book. It’s the manner of telling, however, that totally undermines the movie’s intended emotions.

Since the previews have prepared us for Mia’s loss, and the first ten minutes only confirm what we know, the accident has no impact. Even worse, after the incident, we are spent waiting 90 minutes to see if (a) Adam loves her, (b) if he will be let into ICU to see her, and (c) if, Sleeping Beauty like, his affection will bring her back. While it sounds intriguing, it isn’t. It’s just a prolonged waiting game.

Now, imagine a movie where you knew none of what was going to happen (unless you read the book, of course), where the scripting kept you in the dark about the car crash, the deaths, and Mia’s dilemma until somewhere around the hour mark. During that subtle 60 minutes, we meet Mia, understand her outsider status, feel the love from her family, the scope of her life, her auditioning angst, and her growing desire and need for Adam. We celebrate the coming transformations and wait with bated breath as the news from Julliard arrives.

By laying the proper foundation of complexity and feeling, by relying on surprise and the power of simple organic storytelling, If I Stay could have, perhaps, copied The Fault in Our Stars’ impact. Alas, the desire to experiment with the narrative (and then show same in the trailers), jumping back and forth in time and in chronology, leeched every bit of life out of the premise.

By the time Mia decides what she’s going to do, we’ve long since stopped caring—and caring is the key to a successful tearjerker. Care about the characters and you’ll bawl your eyes out. Feel distant from them and distracted by their story and it would take a Herculean effort to get the waterworks running.

Of course, none of this guarantees that If I Stay would match The Fault in Our Stars, dollar for dollar. Perhaps the latter was just a better, more honest drama. Maybe the former could never find its emotional footing, straightforward style or creatively catawampus. In either case, it would be interesting to see If I Stay reconfigured narratively and given over to another actress with less conventional looks. While it may not fix the movie or make it into a international hit, it would sure go a long way to solving its basic cinematic issues.

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