Monday, August 25, 2014

To Be Or Not: IF I STAY

It’s cliché to say that every problem seems like a life-or-death scenario when you’re young. But the truth is, with burgeoning plans for colleges, careers, and relationships, being a teenager is filled with decisions that can have a lasting impact. Teens feel that pressure. It’s the first time people have a good deal of autonomy over the course their lives will take. No wonder it’s a point in life that leads to such angst, and great movies chronicling it. If I Stay is not a great movie about being a teenager, but it captures some of the subjective experience of having the weight of your future on your hesitant steps into something like adulthood.

It’s a teen weepie that features a high school girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) dealing with her first real boyfriend (Jamie Blackley). She’s a brilliant cellist and wants to go to Julliard. He wants to stay with his skinny-jeans-wearing garage band in Portland and hope to get signed to a record label. Will they break up or try a long distance relationship? It’s a small problem shot in typical glossy teen melodrama style. I’ll admit it’s not very interesting from the outside, but the movie does a good job of communicating the subjective enormity of the question.

What elevates this standard teen romance is a very real injection of life and death. She’s in a car crash. It’s bad. She’s rushed to the hospital, along with her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) and little brother (Jakob Davies). She’s in a coma. Prognosis is iffy. We see the previous 18 months of her life, the romance, the college worries, fun times with parents, dates, concerts, practices, school, hanging out with friends, and more. Intercut with those moments are shots of her hooked up to tubes in the ICU, heart monitors beeping while tearful bedside visitors – grandparents (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose), friends (Liana Liberato and Lauren Lee Smith) – wait and worry. All the while, and here’s the movie’s biggest and corniest symbolic flourish, the girl’s spirit walks around the hospital, watching her family, remembering her past, and trying to decide whether she’ll stay or go, whether she’ll wake up or die.

Despite bouncing between her normal teen past and comatose present, all this is presented in a fairly conventional and linear fashion, little time for artsy expressiveness. Imagine what a Terrence Malick or Apichatpong Weerasethakul would do with this material, and then forget it. This is a movie more interested in tenderly evocative prose rather than cinematic poetry. Documentarian R.J. Cutler makes his fiction film debut here and brings to it a good eye, fine pace, and delicate touch. He pulls emotional triggers without seeming to be excessively manipulative about it. Major weepy potential is softly played, sad without belaboring the point. The slick widescreen photography by John de Borman is beautifully blocked in a way that doesn’t call attention to its casual beauty, while the editing finds minor trembles of emotional stream of consciousness in standard plotting that gains power through its juxtapositions.

On its own, the girl’s life would be a minor, but likeable, pokey drama. It’s pleasant to spend time with her great parents. They’re cool, former punk rockers. They’re understanding, judiciously permissive and always ready with smart advice well spoken. There are also some minor pleasures to be found in a teen romance that plucks at some of the right heartstrings. Adapting Gayle Forman’s novel, screenwriter Shauna Cross, who also wrote the wonderful roller derby comedy Whip It, has a good feel for detail. It’s genuine in its approach to quiet fumbling, biting of the lower lip, sudden moves. Worries about separating over a long distance possibility are shortsighted and nicely observed. A first love scene is neatly edited with a series of dissolves, set to an acoustic cover of Beyoncé’s “Halo,” as the girl compares caressing the boy’s body to playing the cello. It’s sweet.

Juxtaposing average teen movie worries with a ghostly bedside vigil brings a mournful weight to it. Sure, these are ordinary teen concerns, not overly original or especially interesting on their own. But through the risk that these last few months might end up being her last, there’s an underlying urgency. When I read in the news about a car accident that leaves an entire family broken apart, dead or dying, it makes me feel sick. The normal details of their lives are suddenly imbued with a melancholy. If someone survives such a crisis, how can one go on living with so much suddenly gone? That If I Stay captures even a glimmer of that response is to its credit. I didn’t need Moretz wandering hospital halls to provide it.

But this is an affecting, heartfelt little drama that slowly overcomes its shaggier artificial impulses to find a strong emotional core, admirably underplaying big moments when it could go histrionic. The climax turns on two small scenes. The first finds Stacy Keach delivering a teary monologue in what is one of the most vulnerable performances of his career. The second is a flashback campfire sing-along jam session to Smashing Pumpkins in which all the characters spend what will be their final happiest moments together. Both are played quietly, all the more effective for it. Commercial concessions, like an overreliance on voiceover that tramples over potentially powerful silences, only smooth over rough edges. It’s a good movie, with fine performances and solid resonances. But imagining longer silences, more artful editing, I could see a great film in there somewhere.

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