The filmmakers who adapted Gayle Forman’s hit young adult novel “If I Stay” probably didn’t intend to have the audience laughing at the end of the movie, which is what happened at the promotional screening I attended. Personally, I found it relatively subtle, at least compared to what preceded it — a mawkish, preposterous melodrama riddled with clichés, stereotypes, bad dialogue, and inept emotional manipulation.
“Stay” begins with 17-year-old Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) describing in a voice-over narration her enviable life. A cello prodigy, she’s hoping to get into Juilliard. And she couldn’t ask for a better family. Her parents are supportive and really cool — dad used to be in a band called Nasty Bruises and mom is a former Riot Grrrl. But they gave it all up to raise a family — dad even sold his drum kit to buy Mia her first decent cello. As for her younger brother, he’s just precocious enough (he loves Iggy Pop) to be adorable, but not obnoxious.
On the other hand, the subject of her ex-boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley) is off limits. But today it’s a snow day and the family is going for a ride in a pristine winter landscape. Trouble seems far away — unless you’re familiar with hackneyed narrative devices.
“Isn’t it amazing,” muses Mia, “how life is one thing and then suddenly is something else?” And bang, there’s a car crash and Mia finds herself in an awkward out-of-body situation watching EMTs load her inert, battered form into an ambulance. She’s in a coma and in some kind of limbo where she can only watch. Invisible, ignored, and panic-stricken, she asks what happened to the rest of her family.
Is it wrong for a viewer to hope that they’re permanently out of the picture?
Exuding chipper niceness, Mia’s family is insufferable. The parents combine faux hipness with fey wholesomeness, and the kid has all the charm of the obnoxious brat in “The Blind Side.”
Unfortunately, they return — in flashbacks. These mostly involve Mia’s rocky romance with Adam. His band has gotten hot and is always on the road at the same time her own ambitions seem likely to take her to New York City. The conflict is tearing them apart. Which is more important, they argue, your dream or your love? Neither wants to make a sacrifice. And with her family’s fate looking grim, no wonder Mia is beguiled by the beckoning white light.
Maybe on the page this all seems less ridiculous. A novel can enter a character’s subjectivity and allows readers to use their imagination. But movies, being literal and superficial, must work harder to suspend an audience’s disbelief, or, in this case, their sense of humor.
On the other hand, the laughter might come from discomfort rather than absurdity. Up to this point in the film the experience of death, or near death, has been observed from the point of view of a spectator. It’s like a death selfie. Today’s culture encourages detachment from life — and death. Maybe the end of “If I Stay” brings on a momentary recognition of this alienation. If so, it’s no laughing matter.
“If I Stay” trailer:Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.