Friday, August 22, 2014

If I Stay: Existential angst

If I Stay (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.22.14

We certainly can’t imagine what it would be like, for a soul stalled between life and death — the likely wealth of conflicting emotions at play — but Chloë Grace Moretz makes a persuasive case.

In the aftermath of a horrific accident, Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) gradually realizes that her
soul remains in limbo, able to watch but not affect the efforts being made to save her
comatose body, which hovers near death in a hospital bed.
As the young star of director R.J. Cutler’s adaptation of Gayle Forman’s enormously popular young adult novel, Moretz is a memorably tragic heroine: engagingly shy and vulnerable, winsomely sweet, undecided in the ways we all remember from our high school years, and then forced to confront a horrific tragedy that, inexplicably, places her in a position to make an almost impossible decision.

The question is the degree to which we get involved with her unusual plight.

Forman’s book is yet another entry in the currently popular sub-genre of “doomed youth” sagas, many recently adapted to the big screen, several of them this year. The current leader of the pack obviously is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, but we also can point to Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and several books by Nicholas Sparks, among others.

Although this trend seems somewhat masochistic, I suppose enjoying a good cry is a lot healthier than wallowing in a gory slasher flick.

The book has been carefully and sensitively handled by scripter Shauna Cross, who came to our attention after adapting her own novel Derby Girl into 2009’s under-appreciated roller-derby drama, Whip It, which gave Ellen Page a similarly endearing character arc. “If I Stay” has the added benefit of strong casting in all the supporting roles, and I’m sure Cutler had a hand in that, given his position as one of the executive producers of TV’s sharply assembled Nashville.

Moretz’s Mia Hall is a school misfit: a quiet outcast who assigned herself that role, due to a (probably justified) concern that her peers wouldn’t think much of a girl who prefers the cello, Yo-Yo Ma and Beethoven to electric guitar and the gyrations of the newest “it” band. Mia also is something of an anomaly at home: Her father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), was the drummer in a punk band before becoming a teacher; her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), was the ultimate groupie-turned-wife, who carted Mia to gigs as a toddler and reveres tough rock chicks like Deborah Harry.

And Mia’s little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies), idolizes Iggy Pop.

Not that anybody in Mia’s family makes her feel like an outsider. Denny and Kat are warm, supportive, tolerant and wise ... frankly, the best parents anybody could imagine. But they don’t look, feel or sound like impossibly ideal archetypes; armed with Cross’ note-perfect dialogue, and assisted by Cutler’s deft direction, Leonard and Enos simply emerge as caring adults who relate to their daughter’s angst because, well, they never quite abandoned their own anti-establishment younger selves.

This story comes armed with several moral imperatives, including this biggie: To thine own self be true. Denny and Kat know this.

Our shy heroine also has a great best friend, Kim (Liana Liberato), who is delighted, one day, to point out that Mia has come to the attention of Adam Wilde (Jamie Blackley).

Impossible, Mia insists; he’s a senior, a year older, the coolest kid in school, and fronting an increasingly popular band, Willamette Stone, that could be destined for greater glory. How could a guy like that be interested in a girl who hides in music class to practice the cello?

Ah, but that’s simple. Adam recognizes what Mia’s parents have known for years: that she “blisses out” and becomes one with her instrument, and with her music. You can’t help admiring, even loving, a person who can wholly abandon herself to her passion.

These back-story details initially are sketched thinly, even only suggested, because we’re scarcely 10 minutes into the film before the aforementioned tragedy strikes: a road accident that leaves Mia comatose in a hospital bed, kept alive by pumps and monitors that doctors are afraid to remove.

All of which Mia watches, thanks to an out-of-body experience that allows her to see and hear the hospital staff working so hard on her behalf, and the friends and family members who gather at her bedside. They don’t see or hear her, of course, nor can she interact with anything or anybody.

The story’s big decision rests with this “astral Mia,” which we can regard as her soul. It would be easy, even comforting, to surrender to death and heaven’s warm embrace: the blinding white light she occasionally sees filling one of the hospital hallways. Alternatively, fighting for life would be hard, the results far from certain, possibly even calamitous.

So ... should she stay, or go?

The choice seems obvious at first, but only because we’ve not yet experienced the harsher elements of Forman’s storyline.

All of this could be profoundly depressing, particularly because Moretz so skillfully channels uncertainty, confusion and anguish. Our hearts break any number of times, most notably when Mia’s astral self watches her grandfather (Stacy Keach, also quite fine) at her bedside. Rough stuff, to be sure.

But Cutler and Cross wisely dilute the melancholy by granting this unfolding tragedy the context of Mia’s memories. We thus learn of her parents’ rocker pasts, their puzzled confusion over a young daughter who fell in love with a cello. We observe the evolution of Mia and Adam’s relationship: joyous as long as high school bonds them, fraught with uncertainty thereafter.

Talent can’t help but pull their lives in different directions. Mia dreams of landing an audition to enter Juilliard, which would send her to New York, far from the cozy Portland suburbs given such earthy charm by cinematographer John de Borman (although actual filming was done in Vancouver). Willamette Stone gains popularity and sends Adam on the road for increasing stretches of time. Can love endure?

And if it doesn’t, is that anguish enough to give up on everything else?

Such angst notwithstanding, I’m not sure Cross ever sells that conflict. Mia is a gutsy rebel who has grown up proud of her individuality and uniqueness; she also draws strength from the music she adores, and the people who adore her.

Yielding to despair feels out of character, no matter what the circumstances.

Mia seems far more likely to respond to the compassionate nurse (Aisha Hinds, in a small but telling part) who whispers in the comatose girl’s ear, telling her to fight, that hospital staff can do only so much, and that, ultimately, it’s up to her.

Much depends on the relationship between Mia’s astral self and her comatose body; it’s not clear, in this film, whether the astral Mia can “share” what she sees and hears, in the outer world, with the bedridden self that struggles for life. That’s an important detail, since it obviously plays a sizable role in her eventual choice.

This existential struggle aside, Cutler’s film (fortunately!) is dominated by the warmer, richer and even humorous interactions between its characters. Moretz and Blackley fall in love quite charmingly, the latter blessed with a guileless sincerity that’s both adorable and unexpected. And if Moretz seems far too cute a girl to be ignored in high school, regardless of her music taste, well, that’s a long-familiar movie cliché; we have to roll with it.

Moretz has an expressive face, particularly the bashful, faltering smile that Mia displays when surprised; she’s simply adorable. Blackley has earnest charm to burn, although he’s less successful when the script forces Adam to be short-tempered or cross; such behavior seems forced and artificial, demanded more by scripted insistence than credible discord, and we sense a manipulative master puppeteer at work.

Fortunately, you’re more likely to be charmed, throughout, by various little touches: a sweet montage during the early stages of Mia and Adam’s blossoming love, notably a skateboard sequence in the rain; a Hall family tradition that unites friends, family and “stragglers” for a massive Sunday meal; a quiet exchange between Denny and Kat, on the stairs outside adolescent Mia’s bedroom, as they listen to her practice that cello for hours on end.

The film’s score is equally enchanting: a blend of classical Beethoven and Bach, composer Heitor Pereira’s evocative underscore, and music supervisor Linda Cohen’s carefully chosen pop/rock/punk anthems from Sonic Youth, Blondie, Zoltan Kodaly, Buzzcocks, The Dandy Warhols and numerous up-to-the-minute Pacific Northwest bands. Willamette Stone’s sound hearkens back to the Ramones, and Blackley does a nice job with the five songs that Adam’s band delivers throughout the story.

No question: Cutler, Cross, Moretz and the rest of this cast have treated Forman’s novel quite honorably. This film is genuine, heartfelt and poignant, without sliding into pathos or treacle. That said, I was much more emotionally involved with all these characters during their happier moments — all those flashbacks — than with poor Mia’s momentous, fateful, final choice.

That simply didn’t move me ... which probably isn’t the reaction Forman would have preferred.

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