What You Did Up There Was Magic
“You smell of memory
Felt-tipped electric child.”
—Sonic Youth, “Karen Revisited”
“I am the passenger.” Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) can withstand only a few beats of Iggy Pop’s tune while she is, indeed, a passenger in her parents’ minivan. As they’ve promised that she can select the music in order to get her to ride with them, she changes her little brother’s choice to Beethoven. “I always wondered,” Mia muses in voiceover, as you see her face in the passenger’s window, “if mom and dad were disappointed that I didn’t turn out like them.”
Yes, Mia sounds like many high schoolers here, though If I Stay urges you to believe she’s as special as anyone at the center of a YA saga, which is to say, so very special. In this iteration—R.J. Cutler’s movie draws from Gayle Forman’s source novel—the special girl is a cellist, gifted of course, but also feeling out of place, as she puts it, because her dad (Joshua Leonard) was a rock drummer and her mom (Mireille Enos) a riot grrl, at least until they gave up their music to become Good Parents (dad is now an English teacher, that is, the very embodiment of selflessness).
They’ve always encouraged her interest in the cello (“I love the order,” she says, “It’s like my heart is beating with the cello”), at times making sacrifices beyond her understanding. “Cellos are crazy expensive,” she says, but somehow dad found a way to buy her one. Still, she lacks the confidence that might have made this movie less formulaic.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t pursue her interest, or make it visible, even in the harrowing hallways of high school. Here she’s spotted by beautiful young Adam (Jamie Blackley), who informs her that he’s attracted by her passion. It might or might not help that he’s a rock guitarist and singer with his own band, Willamette Stone: they can talk music, go vinyl-record shopping, have blurry sex to a cover of “Halo”, and ride his skateboard together, but still, they’re soooo different.
Where her support system pops up repeatedly, including an adorable little brother (Jakob Davies) and a best girlfriend (Liana Liberato), he only refers to his family in the past tense; where he’s outgoing (despite whatever background he’s not discussing) and prone to lyrics that leave no doubt about his feelings (“I want what you have!”), she’s painfully shy (despite talking lots about how she feels), and the camera underlines how alienated she feels at his shows: she stands in the back of the room, she scowls when he stands close to his female bandmate on stage or signs girl fans’ chests.
How oh how will they ever make it? When Mia frets, Adam encourages. If she’s hesitant, he’s self-assured. While Kim suggests he’s popular in school (you don’t see this, so you take her word for it), he’s instantly determined to date this lovely loner (it’s actually unclear how much time they might know each other before he swoops in, Edward Cullenish, to ask her out). And he must be right about them being together, she (or you) might reason, because, well, because they’re in a movie where that needs to be true.
Even when the movie sets up a series of bumps in their road—he’s on the road with the band, she’s thinking about going to Juilliard—these appear so corny, predictable, and overcome-able that you’re hard-pressed to worry. Except… well… this one really big bump.
This is the one that comes up within the movie’s first few minutes and sets up the rest of its structure, as a lot of flashbacks. That big bump is revealed in the title, and telegraphed in the line that precedes it, namely, “Isn’t it amazing how life is something and then, in an instant, it becomes something else?” Yes, it is amazing.
Boom comes the car crash, occurring during that very scene where Mia’s listening to Beethoven. The problem here (immediately, and again, predictably) is the movie’s impulse to make her limbo state visible. Not only does she stand on the road and watch herself loaded onto a gurney and into an ambulance by the flipped-over car, but she goes on to watch herself in surgery (her view featuring bloody doctors’ hands trying to fix her spleen and other organs) and hooked up to machines while she’s in a coma. During these lengthy, presumably boring hours (days?), she not only flashes back, but also scampers from room in the hospital, seeking glimpses of her family members.
Again, the literalization is distracting and, too frequently, nonsensical: though Mia is a spirit of some sort, unseen by anyone else, still, her access to informative conversations is conveniently limited, expanding and reducing plot time as needed. This time is sometimes shaped by visual banalities—white light at the end of the hospital hallway, slow motion efforts by hospital staff, meaningful ballads, sung meaningfully—and more often by heartfelt declarations of support for Mia, uttered by the black nurse (Aisha Hinds) who tells her it’s up to her whether she lives or dies and the great grandpa (Stacy Keach) who tells her it’s okay if she dies, and sometimes not voiced at all, but implied by the revolving unnamed classmates and musicians who stand by her bedside in a dissolvey montage so she sees that “so many people” love her.
Of course, the support she most seeks is that coming from Adam, with whom she’s recently had another break-up fight, and so you have to wait a bit for that to emerge, which only means more expanding of story time, if not precisely tension.
For all its earnest delivery to romantic expectations, what remains irksome in If I Stay is how little agency it grants Mia, even as she appears to be allowed the decision whether to stay or go. And so she comes to seem a passenger after all, riding along with her movie’s many other clichés.