An appealing cast that conveys genuine love and warmth helps keep the sappiness in check in "If I Stay."
The tear-jerking teen romance, based on a 2009 young adult novel by Gayle Forman, concerns a shy, musically gifted cellist, Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz), and her first big love, a handsome, hip and happening guitarist, Adam (Jamie Blackley).
The supremely talented Moretz and heartthrob Blackley make a cute couple, and no doubt will win over a large female audience with their perceptible chemistry and honest moments. Beethoven-loving Mia becomes more secure in his alternative rock world. Her family is the one Adam never had.
During her senior year, his band is broadening its horizons while she sets her sights on the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Complications rear when they are at a crossroads regarding those career paths.
Seventeen-year-old Mia winds up in a coma after a serious car accident, and her life hangs in the balance. Mia's out-of-body self becomes the point of view, as she observes her loved ones' anguish and her life in flashback. The focus shifts to fate vs. self-will as the bright white light beckons.
I've been a champion of Moretz ("Hugo") for a long time, and she continues to shine on screen, this time in her first love story as the quiet girl stunned that the cool guy likes her. She and Blackley ("Snow White and the Huntsman") have a comfortable chemistry, and her relationships with her best friend (Liana Liberato) and parents Kat and Denny (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) ring true, too. She has a special bond with her kind Grandpa (Stacy Keach), and their scenes are heartfelt.
Mia's parents are a super-cool duo that people are drawn to. The door's-always-open pair are smart and loving. As played by Enos ("World War Z"), Mom is earthy and sweet, a former rocker chick. Portrayed by a bespectacled Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project"), shaggy ex-punk drummer Dad is fun and adventurous. Teddy (Jakob Davies) is the adorable little-tyke brother.
They fit the jeans-and-sweaters Portland vibe that's evident throughout the movie -- laid-back Oregonians with big hearts and caring souls.
Director R. J. Cutler (TV's "Nashville") attempts to keep it real, but the cliches can't be avoided. He treats the maudlin material with respect and ,fortunately, his cast sells it. Bring tissues -- you will be powerless to resist the emotional tug of family tragedy. (At least everyone around me was sniffling.)
You must appreciate a movie this passionate about good music, and Mia's bliss playing classical music comes through. Moretz isn't too shabby handling those skills, either. The hipster soundtrack, heavily featuring Adam's band Willamette Stone, adds the right touch to the ups and downs of modern courtship -- The Orwells, Tanlines, Beck and Sonic Youth included.
What Doesn't Work
The introvert-extrovert relationship is believable, but the conflict that pits following your dream with staying together locally seems contrived, given that she's presented as independent and he has starry-eyed goals as well. Would someone like Mia turn down Juilliard to avoid a long-distance relationship? Highly unlikely. Because much hinges on that plot point, that's when it veers off course. We could accept the rest. (By the way, only 7 percent of applicants get into Juillard School of Music, so acceptance is quite an achievement).
2 1/2 stars
Director: R.J. Cutler
Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Jamie Blackley, Joshua Leonard, Mireille Enos, Stacy Keach, Jakob Davies
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material