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Non-Review Review: If I Stay…

If I Stay… has a pretty great leading performance from actress Chloë Grace Moretz and a fantastic supporting turn from veteran character actor Stacy Keach. Both actors do the best they can with the material on hand, although it is clearly an uphill struggle. There’s a sense that the two actors are wandering lost through the film. Moretz’s character is not so much trapped in a hospital as in a terrible screenplay.

If I Stay… squanders these performances with an incredibly cynical and calculated narrative that plays less like the reflective highlights of teenager’s life, and more like a collection of young adult clichés combined together and served up through a blatantly manipulative framing device.

Leaving the audience cold...

Leaving the audience cold…

Stories like If I Stay… are difficult. Stories are by their nature emotionally manipulative, they are about tricking the audience into caring about a fictional character they only met an hour or two ago. The trick is to hook the audience in, and to change the way that they think or feel – to make them respond to the work. In most cases, that involves attempting to forge an emotional connection between the audience and the characters.

In most cases, fostering this attachment involves some form of manipulation – an attempt to “trick” the audience into responding a particular way, to make them feel closer to these characters and this world than they might otherwise. There is nothing wrong with this approach. When it is used well, it elevates film. The problem is that a film should leave an audience feeling a particular way, but it should never leave them feeling manipulated. The audience should be watching the card, not the magician’s hand.

Sweet music?

Sweet music?

The idea of cinema-as-magic is a tried-and-tested movie metaphor. However, it applies. The trick isn’t so much the mechanics of the illusion so much as how you guide the audience through that illusion. The trick is to manipulate the audience without leaving them feeling manipulated. It is something that requires a great deal of skill on any level, but here are cases where the stakes are heightened. Just as there are some illusions that the audience knows too well, there are some manners of manipulation that can feel too familiar.

If I Stay… tries to manipulate its audience using classic methods. The script hits any number of recognisable plot beats, each designed to draw an emotional response to the audience. If I Stay… practically has a checklist. Quirky family unit. Young love. Life-changing decisions. Life-and-death stakes. Massive loss. The sense of a slowly-unfolding trauma. These are rote elements of a coming-of-age story, but If I Stay… goes for broke in an almost ruthless fashion.

Photo finish...

Photo finish…

The script skips any attempt at finesse and just dives at the audience with a sledgehammer. Whenever it seems like things might be slowing down, the movie hits the audience with another hint of trauma. It is worth noting that movie’s big traumatic moments do not come all at once, but are instead meticulously positioned within the runtime. If I Stay… has decided what cards it wants to play, and it throws them down at designated intervals, for calculated results. No twist, no bluff, nothing left in the hand.

This is a bold approach, and it’s hard not to admire how entirely up-front If I Stay… is. There are lots of sad things that can happen to a family, and If I Stay… just jumps right in and commits to them wholehearedly. There’s no finesse here, no nuance, no real art. This isn’t a movie that floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. This is a movie that swings blindly and aggressively. If I Stay… is a series of brute force jabs targeted squarely at “the feels”, made with the hunger of a film that has doubled-down on the direct approach.

"What's a composer like you doing in a place like this?"

“What’s a composer like you doing in a place like this?”

If I Stay… goes all in. The problem is obvious. The blows are all telegraphed ahead of time. Once it becomes clear exactly what the film is doing, the punches don’t land as well as they might. If I Stay… really has nothing else to trade on. The framework of the film allows for a “greatest hits” approach to all the typical young adult tropes and clichés, without any real need to structure them or develop them outside of those. There’s never a real sense of context or depth, just a sense that this is all stuff that other films have done better.

To be fair to If I Stay…, this is a very tough sell.These sorts of heavy young adult films need to be constructed with particular care, precisely because they tend to go for the low-hanging emotional fruit. Even though The Fault in Our Stars did a much better job with similar material, it occasionally found itself stumbling as it hit a particular note too heavily. If I Stay… lacks the wit or wry self-awareness that elevated The Fault in Our Stars, replacing it with clearer drive and more focus. These don’t pay off.

"Jack, I'm flying!"

“Jack, I’m flying!”

Chloë Grace Moretz does the best that she can with the material available, but it often seems like she’s playing well below her skill set. It doesn’t help that her performance is constantly undercut by director R.J. Cutler’s refusal to let the camera settle, or composer Heitor Pereira’s inability to let a big emotional moment pass without trying to let the audience know exactly how they should be feeling at a particular moment.

The movie’s most successful emotional moment belongs to veteran actor Stacy Keach, who decides to get into the spirit of the film by just going straight for it. It’s not a subtle moment, it’s not a low-key moment. However, Keach actually has the dramatic heft to pull it off, despite the fact that that film has been trying for an hour-and-a-half. After watching the movie try so hard to score a cheap shot, it’s a relief to see such a class act who can actually land a decent blow.

If I Stay… feels more than a little cynical. The problem isn’t that it ruthlessly tries to manipulate the audience. The problem is that it lacks any finesse in its attempt to do so.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you. Was feeling it might be exactly as you say.Great performances can’t pull it anymore.Great actresses must be literate and choose wisely their directors and screenplays.Fault In Our Stars traded shamelessly on actors and Anne Frank to squeeze every last tear out of audience.

    • I didn’t mind The Fault in Our Stars too much. The Anne Frank house was a bit much, but I thought it did a much better job tackling issues of child mortality than My Sister’s Keeper, Death of a Superhero or If I Stay… It was far from perfect, but I think it was better than a lot of its competitors. (Although you’re right, a lot of that is down to casting.)

  2. Great review Darren–it definitely sounds like something I should skip, and that even the brilliant Chloe Moritz’s can’t elevate this as she has so many other movies. The only problem I have is you never told me what the movie is about. Now I have to read another review somewhere else.

    • Fair point Larry. I am just very wary of being accused of “spoiling” a film, which is a very common stick that can be used to beat film critics these days. So I steal clear of nuts-and-bolts plot descriptions, because I am wary of continuing past a point that somebody might consider “fair.” This is a particularly interesting example, because the whole plot is predicated on an event that should probably come as a surprise to the viewer, so I spend the review dancing around it and talking about it in the broadest possible terms.

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