A young cellist has an out-of-body experience after a car wreck.
If I Stay is an adaptation of Gayle Forman's young adult novel about Mia Hall, an 18-year-old cello prodigy who must decide whether to live or die following a car accident. In addition to telling a story, the movie begs an important question: When should a filmmaker stray from his source material?
Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is waiting to hear whether she's been accepted to Juilliard, and she's in the midst of a romance with Adam (Jamie Blackley), a kindred spirit whose rock band is on the rise. Then a car trip with her parents (Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard) and younger brother (Jakob Davies) turns tragic. The film alternates between flashbacks and events at the hospital. Through an out-of-body experience, Mia discovers that she's in critical condition. She sees what kind of life she'll return to if she chooses to fight for it.
If I Stay offers strong acting and lovely character moments, especially considering that director R.J. Cutler has primarily worked on documentaries (The War Room, The September Issue). Moretz and Blackley have an unusual, spiky chemistry that hints at occasional conflicts between the worlds of rock and classical music. Even the tear-jerking scenes feel fully earned. One of these scenes features Stacy Keach, who delivers a shockingly raw performance as Mia's grandfather.
This movie is very faithful to Forman's novel, yet it doesn't quite produce the same effect. Narrative structure and lines of dialogue are taken directly from the book, yet If I Stay can't always duplicate what's so powerful about Forman's prose. There's an elegiac stillness to much of her novel. That's a tone filmmakers are generally afraid to attempt, and Cutler is no different. When Mia learns a horrifying truth, she crumples to her knees, wailing and pulling her hair while dramatic music plays. Cutler seems to think the audience needs exaggerated external cues to understand loss.
Perhaps it's unfair to expect so much from If I Stay. The film proves effective as an unconventional teen romance and a celebration of familial love. It also shows how hard it is to separate a story from the way that story is told.