Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
Chloë Grace Moretz is here to stay. Whether the movie does is what it could probably allude its title toward.
That’s basically what is to be expected of this film. Or who, for that matter. Having gained immense fame for her portrayal of Hit-Girl in the Kick-Ass movies, Moretz’s choice of movies she ends up performing in have been anything but conventional. In all honesty, If I Stay (helmed by documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler in his debut effort) could most probably be one of her only conventional movie choices ever made till date. Of course, there’s also the pleasant Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but let’s face it – her character was so different from the rest of the ilk.
Which now brings us to R. J. Cutler. From documentaries to non-fiction television to scripted television and now – with the advent of this film adaptation of Gayle Forman’s book of the same title – he’s come a really long way. And looking at the trailers, it’s at the very least vaguely sensible why Cutler – who’s one of the producers of the much loved television musical drama series Nashville – would direct this film. For the characters are so entrenched in music (atleast from the trailers) that it would definitely be of interest to see how in an otherwise conventional young adult framework will music stand out as a character.
What’s it About?
Of course, it’s the music that drives them closer. Mia (Moretz) is seen by rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley; The Fifth Estate) playing the cello – with not a care in the world – and sparks immediately fly. They get into a tumultuous relationship which hinges itself over a question mark when Mia and her family are in a horrific accident. Mia, now facing an out-of-body experience, tries to piece what validates her existence on Earth anymore.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Cutler, in his debut directorial effort, seems very sure of the kind of tone he wants for the film – laid-back, believable and intensively consistent. Of course, his experience as documentary filmmaker does show in a couple of places – ever so subtly – but that doesn’t harm much. Even otherwise, Cutler knows emotion and believability, and he brings the best out of them in both the romantic journey and the performances of both protagonists. The film moves rhythmically from one scene to the other, joining two scenes in a seamless edit by Keith Henderson, helped majorly by the score and sound design. In fact, music definitely takes over in one of the most brilliantly acted and directed scenes in the film, where Mia, auditioning for Juilliard, gives her all, performing a stunning piece on the cello, complemented well by the occasional piano. Moretz – in those five minutes – almost makes us believe she’s Mia, and her world is nothing but the cello. Considering she has not played the cello outside the parallel universe of the film, her performance, particularly in the scene, is to watch out for.
The problem is majorly the screenwriting, which seems to cripple the director and his vision of taking the movie forward. Shauna Cross, whose last film adaptation – Whip it – of her own novel Derby Cross gave a better push at her skills and earned accolades wider, can’t seem to generate the same high. Maybe the story she’s adapting isn’t emotionally relevant to her personally like Whip it ACTUALLY was, or Gayle Forman’s book is to blame (the latter being highly unlikely). Either ways, the movie, making an earnest attempt to charm us with an utterly believable relationship, falls into the same clichés as the characters eventually evolve and face conflict. Of course, the supernatural twist on things keeps the movie fairly interesting, but while the parallel editing of both timelines in the film works beautifully sometimes, it doesn’t some others. Besides, while the chemistry is fairly there, the build up into it is (unfortunately) laughably quick. Meanwhile, the McGuffin called music seems intimidated with the McGuffin called out-of-body experience, and none are able to hold ground, even though there was a lot of potential.
The film is mostly gorgeously shot. Cinematographer John de Borman (An Education) gives the film a mostly consistent feel, whilst engaging in old school techniques of romanticization, using extreme close-ups, shallow depth of field and proper positioning of lighting to his effect. There’s a couple of scenes in which handheld cameras have a completely different resolution and texture in a scene full of elliptical shots. That works mainly because the color remains the same throughout. There were a lot of tints, however, that the post-production wizards seem to have gone overboard with. In their deliberate attempt to have quick flashback montages look surreal, there’s a lot of color crunching involved. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, adding deliberate noise to your images might not really be a nice thing to do when your main aim is old-school romance. The production design is quaint. They haven’t gone overboard with anything, so any bit of epic is distanced away. This – for a young adult film – is definitely a decision that’s well off. While the music is fantastic in places, the major classics being used in most places, I feel it hasn’t been exploited enough for a film where music, love and freedom are intersecting elements of a story.
To Perform or Not to Perform
If there’s anything at all that’s been done right though, it’s the choice of performers and the way they’ve been directed to look like actual people I might see walking around my vicinity. Chloë Grace Moretz dons a surprisingly conventional role, and with a low-key performance that isn’t undercooked (we’re all looking at you, Kristen Stewart), Moretz makes an amazing impression as the pretty-but-shy-and-socially-awkward teenager. Jamie Blackley is a natural and pulls off his part like he is the character. Mireille Enos (World War Z) pitches in a sincere performance as the laidback cool-mom, and she most certainly is so much fun to see. Who knew the viscerally annoying Red from the atrocious Shark Night 3D could also switch to heartwarming Dad? Joshua Leonard is such fun to see on-screen, and his performance doesn’t disappoint at all. Liana Liberato (Trust; Stuck in Love) doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but she breezes past and isn’t intolerable by any means. Special mention to Aisha Hinds (The Next Three Days) as the nurse by Mia’s side. Her role isn’t much at all, but she does make her presence felt. Stacy Keach has a very functional role, but he does make it through in a couple of scenes. Jakob Davies is fine, but he’s there for a purpose. Others are efficient.
This movie – like a number of others I’ve talked about previously – has an audience type. If you’re a part of the audience that is going to love the film anyway, or if you’re a fan of the book and are willing to see your book come to life, then it’s a definite recommendation. If, however, you’re a casual-to-hardcore moviegoer who’s looking for consistency and intensity in emotional relevance, this movie might not be. Moretz, Blackley and the rest of the cast deliver warm, winning performances to characters that have a stilted evolution arc, thanks to a screenplay that falls into its own cliché-laden trap.
But the good thing is, Cutler could possibly be here to stay too. And that says something.
Star Rating: 2.5 / 5