"Romance novels" function on idealization, including fulfilling a teen's yen for drama -- any kind of drama -- to alleviate the tedium of school days and curfew nights. And so impossibly cute romance meets tragedy to mix up ye olde rom-dram formula, whether it's "The Fault in Our Stars" or its on-the-heels screen sibling "If I Stay," based on Gayle Forman's YA novel.
ChloŽ Grace Moretz plays Mia Hall, a cello-playing Yo Yo Ma fanatic growing up in Oregon under loving, attentive punk-rock-loving parents. They're, well, impossibly cute: Isn't it zany how Mom and Dad (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) haunted rock clubs and Mia loves symphony halls? You just want to pinch their cheeks! But speaking of "haunted," after a discreetly depicted car accident, Mia finds herself a Patrick Swayze-style ghost -- make that a "coma ghost" -- having the mother of all out-of-body experiences.
With time to remember and reflect on her life to this point, and the freedom to stalk her loved ones, Mia learns it's up to her to decide if she lives or dies, her decision-making process forming the dramatic spine of the film. Never mind that this hardly seems like much of a choice. Especially since Mia was lucky enough to bag a cute guy, Adam (Jamie Blackley), a rock guitarist who gigs with a band, seems likely to get signed, and seems to love Mia madly.
Mia and Adam's less-than-credible just-so courtship takes up the lion's share of the story, and it's sweet enough to amount to a fine, hormone-stoking teen date movie. But there is trouble in paradise. Too many of the characters are idealized, and despite a predictable, late-breaking "twist," "If I Stay" poorly dramatizes Mia's actual choice: at least the way the script and Moretz play it, it always seems like a no-brainer; hence, there's little in the way of dramatic tension. The film's spiritual bent (just a stone's throw from "Heaven Is for Real") never amounts to more than silly and, worse, the film can be read as implying that Mia's only reason for living is the boy she likes. Paging the National Organization for Women ... National Organization for Women, report to Theater 7 ...
Still, who doesn't like being lovingly spoon-fed? There's pop psychology from Dad ("Sometimes you make choices in life, and sometimes they make you") and Mom ("True love's a bitch"), Stacy Keach killing it as hospital-bedside Gramps, and a "who's gonna argue?" theme of living in the now and making true-love sacrifices. Better known as a documentary filmmaker, R.J. Cutler ("The September Issue") helps by acquitting himself professionally as a dramatic one. Yeah, his film may be shamelessly engineered and sappy, but swoony romantics (c'mon, you know you are one!) may not much mind.
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material. One hour, 46 minutes.