Yes, "If I Stay" is yet another teen romance based on a young adult book. I will disclose that I read and loved Gayle Forman's best-selling book about a brilliant young cellist faced with the ultimate life-and-death decision after her entire family is involved in a devastating car accident. Mia Hall (Chloe Moretz in her first romantic lead role) is an invisible spirit watching over her unconscious body in an intensive care unit. As she ponders what the future holds for her (is she headed for Juilliard, as she once hoped, or should she just give in to the lure of letting go), Mia spends most of her time remembering what she loved most about her pre-crash life: her family, her best friend, and her rather amazing boyfriend Adam (Jamie Blackley).
Director R.J. Cutler's take on the supernatural teen romance changes a few things up while remaining faithful to the book on which it's based. Do you need to read the book to enjoy the movie? Who's the adorable leading guy? Read on to find out what you need to know about the newest YA romance.
1. You'll Like It More If You've Read It
A movie, of course, should not require that you be familiar with the source material to understand or enjoy it, but let's face it -- when it comes to adaptations -- particularly young adult novels -- the uninitiated are unlikely to care as much as the book's established fans. In this case, some of the movie's maudlin elements are a lot easier to forgive if you're already invested in Mia's story. Instead of concentrating on the melodrama, you'll appreciate the flashbacks, the music, and the romance that made the book a best seller.
2. Author Gayle Forman Approves
Forman, also one of the movie's producers, was heavily involved in the film adaptation, because, as she told us, it's such "a personal story." The character of Adam was based on her husband ("When I met my husband for the first time, he was skinny punk boy and a lot of the lines in the book like, 'Why don't you write a song for me?'... I actually said that to him," she said) and Mia's parents are based on close friends who died in a car accident.
"I just had a sense that I really wanted it to be done right. By right, I don't mean I wanted everything exactly as it is in the book. In fact, I think that is the wrong way to do an adaptation," she said. "I think that can actually sabotage a work if you're too loyal, but I wanted the emotional experience of reading the book to translate to the screen and I wanted the characters to translate to the screen."
3. It's A "Limbo" Story
For the majority of the movie, Chloe's character Mia is in a coma, but her spirit can see what's going on around her. Unlike other movies with protagonists in an out-of-body state ("Just Like Heaven," "The Invisible"), no one else can hear or see Mia, so the supernatural component is limited to her own consciousness. This means there are scenes where spirit Mia is looking at comatose Mia and thinking of happily living in the past Mia -- with narration. It's a tough combination to pull off, and it's emotionally exhausting to keep seeing spirit Mia deal with news of her dead family and the grief of her grandparents, boyfriend, and best friend. That's why for the most part, the flashback scenes are preferable to the hospital ones.
4. Meet Jamie Blackley
Manx newcomer (he's from the Isle of Man) Jamie Blackley beat out hundreds of contenders from Australia, North America, and Europe to play Adam Wilde, a swaggery but vulnerable rocker who falls for Mia the moment he sees how passionately she plays the cello. Moretz affectionately refers to 23-year-old Blackley as a "nerdy British guy" who knew how to put on American accent, a cool leather jacket, and turn on the intensity. Even if you don't care for the movie, you will agree that Blackley -- who really is a musician who appeared in the London production of "Spring Awakening" -- is simultaneously edgy and adorable. Instead of the typical "bad boy," Blackley's Adam is all kinds of awesome. Expect more roles from Blackley, who has already landed a starring gig in Woody Allen's next project.
5. The Soundtrack Is More Mainstream Than Expected
Filled with a combination of indie rockers (Beck, Ben Howard); adult contemporary singer-songwriters (Ane Brun, Tom Odell); post-punk standard-bearers Sonic Youth; Adam's fictitious band Willamette Stone; and classical pieces, the soundtrack is worth listening to, especially if pop ballads are your thing (Brun's remake of "Halo" is particularly lovely), but it isn't as hip or punk-friendly as expected given the band's style as mentioned in the book. Adam's band sounds more like John Mayer meets Coldplay than underground Portland rockers.
6. The Parents Are Lovable Hipsters
So often in coming-of-age movies, parents are distant, heartless, tyrannical adversaries who get in their teen's way and as the Fresh Prince famously said, "just don't understand." Not so with Mia's parents, who are earnestly played by Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard as the kind of cool young parents who want their daughter to go out, have fun, and fall in love. Former Portland punk rockers, the Halls are much wilder than their prim cellist of a daughter, so it's really adorable when they get to rock out with her boyfriend who likes their kind of music. Enos is always so good. I wish she would get more leading (as opposed to mom or wife) roles; hasn't anyone seen "The Killing"?
7. This is One of YA's Sweetest Romances
People unfamiliar with contemporary YA seem to think "The Fault In Our Stars" is the only book worth reading or knowing about, but as lovely and heartbreaking as John Green's book is, there are plenty of other young adult romances that are equally as poignant and memorable. Mia and Adam are beloved among YA fans tired of the love-triangle trope and interested in realistic -- albeit super talented Juilliard-bound -- teens (well, you know, except for the whole out-of-body part!). Chloe and Jamie's on-screen chemistry is sweeter than it is sizzling, so despite the two love scenes (which were a surprise), it's still appropriate for middle-school devotees of the book.
8. But The Movie Can Be Melodramatic
The whole concept of a nearly dead Mia watching over her comatose self is obviously pretty mawkish, especially when Mia looks for her family or spends what seems like minutes pulling at her hair and looking torn between the great white light of the beyond and the pull of her love of classical music -- not to mention her boyfriend. I'll concede that some of the dialogue that reads as touching on the page sounds sappy in the movie, but as YA adaptations go, this one is better than fellow critics are giving it credit.
9. It Ends On an Ambiguous Note...
Forman ends the book and Cutler ends the movie on an ambiguous note. It's not quite David Chase's "Sopranos" finale, but it's not a Happily Ever After or even a satisfying sense of closure like in "The Fault In Our Stars." But Forman is an author who likes to keep her readers guessing -- and then rewards them with another book -- and Cutler kept the abrupt ending.
10. But There Is a Sequel -- At Least in Book Form
Aren't satisfied with the vague ending? It's unlikely given the mixed reviews that there will be a second film, but you can read what happens in Forman's companion novel, "Where She Went," that picks up three years later and follows Adam's point of view. There's a line in "If I Stay" where Mia asks Adam, "What do I have to do to get a whole album?" -- and I was the only one in my press screening to laugh, because it's a little nod to fans of "Where She Went," in which Adam is an internationally acclaimed rock star thanks to an album all about Mia, "Collateral Damage."