Wake-up call

“Say ‘cheesy.’”

“Say ‘cheesy.’”

Rated 3.0

In If I Stay Chloë Grace Moretz plays Mia Hall, a Portland teenager hovering between life and death after an automobile accident kills the rest of her family. Mia has an out-of-body experience, watching herself in surgery and in a coma in intensive care, while grandparents and friends hold vigil in the hospital. In the operating room, a nurse whispers to her, “It’s up to you, baby, whether you live or die. If you wanna live you gotta fight.”

Mia has an out-of-time experience, too. In regular flashbacks, Mia relives events leading up to her coma. Her childhood, her budding interest in music, her love affair with the cello and other more earthly love affair with Adam (Jamie Blackley), a slightly older rock musician with the aura of a local star.

The out-of-body angle is the gimmick in Shauna Cross’ screenplay, as it was in the Gayle Forman novel on which it is based. The gimmick is a good one; it infuses suspense into a story that would otherwise be rather bland and unexceptional.

Mia isn’t your typical discontented teen. Indeed, she has nothing to be discontented about. Her parents are, like, totally cool. Dad Denny (Joshua Leonard) is a former rocker who withdrew from touring to become a family man, while his wife Kat (Mireille Enos) is just the kind of mom a teenage girl loves to have intimate talks with while doing the dishes. Around the Hall household there’s never any stress or conflict, no sibling bickering, no parental tyranny or adolescent rebellion.

Mia takes up the cello as a little girl (played by Gabrielle Cerys Haslett), when her dogged sawing away upstairs has her parents clenching their teeth at the dining room table. In a rare display of parental exasperation, Mom threatens to gouge her own eyes out (would that really solve anything?). But by the time Mia is in high school, the incessant zoom-zoom exercises have given way to real music, as surely as little Haslett has given way to Moretz, and it’s the intensity of her playing, straddling her instrument with her head bent over the neck of it, that first grabs the attention of Adam, peeking through the window of the practice-room door. Later, chatting her up in the hallway, Adam chides her, “You can’t hide in that practice room anymore. Too late, I see you.”

Romance blossoms between these two pretty youngsters like a time-lapse film of flowers opening to the sun. We go from first date to steady dating to that big moment of first ultimate intimacy, which director R.J. Cutler films with excruciating delicacy, ever mindful not to endanger the movie’s PG-13 rating and the teenage audience that comes with it.

From there, If I Stay marches through early bliss to the first quarrel, which bubbles up when Adam learns that Mia has applied to Juilliard and has been granted an audition, without having mentioned it to him. After the squabble, Adam makes up by secretly plastering Mia’s bedroom ceiling with color photocopies that duplicate, like a jigsaw puzzle, the ceiling of the San Francisco concert hall where she’ll be performing her audition—“I figured if you look at it every night, when you get there for real it won’t be so scary.”

It is while waiting to hear from Juilliard that Mia and her family take that fatal drive on those snow-slicked roads, and Mia’s spirit winds up dashing barefoot and unseen among the doctors, nurses and her own surviving relatives (Stacy Keach and Gabrielle Rose play Mia’s distraught grandparents), while trying to decide whether to walk into that white light at the end of the hall.

It’s not hard to guess what Mia will decide, or whether she’s been accepted to Juilliard (Gayle Forman has already written a sequel, and there’s sure to be a movie of that, too). To help pass the time, I kept thinking of little spoilsport questions. How long at the copy shop did it take Adam to make all those copies for Mia’s ceiling? How does Moretz manage to run barefoot on those gleaming hospital floors without slipping and falling on her face?

But never mind, only churlish people would dwell on such thoughts. If I Stay is an efficient and satisfying teen tearjerker, well-acted by beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes and speaking sensitive thoughts.