LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - A horrific road accident leaves a teenage girl stranded between life and death in "If I Stay," a life-flashing-before-her-eyes melodrama that similarly hovers in a weird limbo between sensitivity and clumsiness. Out-of-body experiences and gooey romantic interludes aside, this adaptation of Gayle Forman's 2009 bestseller hinges on the sort of relatably horrific worst-nightmare scenario that naturally invites, and rewards, a certain level of viewer empathy. But while many in the audience may well find themselves getting misty-eyed as the screen fades to white and softly crooned rock tunes flood the soundtrack, the overall execution is so pedestrian that it's possible to feel more moved by the filmmakers' good intentions than by the actual emotional content onscreen. Warner Bros.' attempt to cash in on the current craze for mortality-obsessed YA material -- call it "The Fault in Our Cars" -- should enjoy decent B.O. staying power among the book's fans and beyond.
The "I" of the title is Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), a lovely, kinda-shy high schooler and gifted cellist who lives in Oregon with her ultra-hip parents, Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), and her cute little brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies). Mia is already in an anxious state of uncertainty when the movie opens, awaiting an acceptance letter from Juilliard that might determine the future of not only her career, but also her relationship with her up-and-coming rock-star boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley). But a much more crucial decision awaits her after a family car ride turns deadly one snowy morning, and when Mia awakens sometime later by the side of the road, she sees her own unconscious body being strapped into an ambulance and transported to the hospital.
Mia hasn't died; she's just fallen into a coma. Not all her family members are so lucky, though, in keeping with the emotional manipulation that comes with the territory, the truth about exactly who has and hasn't survived is deliberately withheld for maximum suspense and devastation. Invisible and inaudible to those around her, Mia's spirit wanders the hospital, eavesdropping on her loved ones as they try to cope and pray for her to make it through surgery. She contemplates her uncertain future and wonders whether she should even bother regaining consciousness. But she also reflects on her past, helpfully filled in by long flashbacks that show a young Mia (Gabrielle Cerys Haslett) falling in love with the cello, to the horrified amusement of her mom and especially her former punk-rocker dad. Years later, she'll fall in love with another talented musician, Adam, who hails from a very different world of bar gigs, road tours and whispers of a possible record deal -- a world that her parents, and even her Iggy Pop-loving brother, seem to know far better than she does.
"If I Stay" is a movie of blunt contrasts -- not just life vs. death, but also extraversion vs. introversion, classical vs. rock -- both of which are amply represented on the soundtrack (though "Should I Stay or Should I Go" somehow fails to make an appearance). The characters' wildly divergent musical tastes provide a convenient metaphor for their differences as individuals: Mia, who spends hours privately steeped in Bach and Beethoven, is withdrawn and socially awkward, and struggles to fit into her b.f.'s ever-widening circle of friends, fans and groupies. Later, with Adam's gentle insistence, she'll learn that the cello need not be just a solo instrument, in a campfire sequence so warmly affectionate yet thematically on-the-nose, you might not know whether to hug yourself or roll your eyes. The act of consummation is similarly couched in musical metaphors, though there isn't much of a charge to the gauzily, tastefully shot love scenes; gone, alas, is the scene from the book in which Mia takes bow in hand and performs her own scintillating symphony on Alex's torso.