If you want to be flip, you could describe If I Stay as a coma-of-age picture: A high school student, in the throes of first love, survives a car crash that takes her family.
Well, she might survive. Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) lies in a hospital room, hooked to tubes and monitors, comatose. "The kid's waking up an orphan - if she wakes up," the EMT guy says as he wheels in the gurney.
"If she wants to live," says an ER physician, "she better start fighting."
That's the gist of this earnest melodrama, based on the top-selling YA novel by Gayle Forman. Will Mia, who steps out of her body to troll the Portland, Ore., hospital halls, and who flashes back on key moments of her childhood and adolescence, opt to live or die, stay or go?
Moretz, a terrific actress, not even 18, has had a tough few years. In the remake of Carrie, her schoolmates bullied and taunted her to the breaking point. In Let Me In, she was a sad-eyed vampire girl, stuck in teendom for eternity. In next month's The Equalizer (with Denzel Washington), she's a jailbait prostitute, pimped by the Russian mob.
In If I Stay, she's a cello prodigy with a poster of Yo-Yo Ma on her locker door. Her parents are totally cool: Mom (The Killing's moody Mireille Enos, putting on a smile) is supportive, while Dad (Joshua Leonard) waxes nostalgic about his glory days as drummer for a metal band, the Nasty Bruises. When Mia starts going out with Adam (Jamie Blackley), the hottest boy in school and a budding rock star, she can hardly believe her luck.
What else could happen? Well, her application to Juilliard could be accepted. That would be to die for.
Directed by R.J. Cutler (the political doc The War Room, the fashion doc The September Issue) from a screenplay by Shauna Cross (What to Expect When You're Expecting), If I Stay treads some of the same dewy emotional turf as The Fault in Our Stars: the heady buzz of young love with the dark cloud of Death hovering above.
It's not as good. There's a gauzy spiritualism in the air, and the out-of-body episodes play like a poor man's (or poor teenager's) It's a Wonderful Life. But Moretz has a nicely calibrated energy and intensity, and the teen romance ups-and-downs of Mia and Adam's relationship - are they really soul mates, or will he drop her when the right groupie shambles along? - feel authentically OMG-ish.
And any movie that considers the possibility of an afterlife, or the possibility that there isn't one, without first getting all postapocalyptic about it, merits some respect.
Stay, Mia, stay!
If I Stay **1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by R.J. Cutler. With Chloë Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard, and Stacy Keach.
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, sex, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.