It's a tough balancing act melding dewy-eyed teen romance with family tragedy, and harder still to weave in rousing rock performances and gorgeous classical music.
If I Stay ambitiously tries to fuse it all and occasionally succeeds (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday nationwide).
Director R. J. Cutler treats the romance and subsequent tragedy with sensitivity, and the story creatively imagines a comatose existence, painting it as a limbo between life and death.
The love story is bland and by-the-book — indeed, it was based on a young-adult novel by Gayle Forman.
Screenwriter Shauna Cross is clearly playing to the audience that loved The Fault in Our Stars.
While Chloë Grace Moretz was a standout as a child in films such as Let Me InandKick-Ass, her performance as a romantic lead is rather lackluster.
But she has a challenging assignment, since a large portion of her screen time is spent in a passive and watchful vacuum.
In half the movie she's a teenager in love, and then, after a car accident, she's suspended, watching herself lie comatose. She's confined to listening and reacting, which is difficult to pull off for even the most experienced actor.
Moretz plays Mia, a shy 17-year-old cellist with dreams of going to Juilliard. She meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), a musician who's a year older, and her well-ordered existence is shaken.
She has a former-rocker dad (Joshua Leonard) and a onetime groupie mom (Mireille Enos), whose bohemian roots are still evident and are a cause for embarrassment for Mia. The two are devoted to Mia and her adorable younger brother, Teddy (Jakob Davies).
Mia's life expands to include Adam and his gigs around town. But that comes to a screeching halt when, on a family outing, she's in a car accident.
The film alternates between flashbacks of Mia playing the cello, riffing with her best friend (Liana Liberato) and loving Adam, and the grim present with spirit Mia roaming hospital corridors, struggling to come to grips with what has happened.
She must decide, as The Clash once put it, "should I stay or should I go." A distraught Adam visits her in the hospital, guitar in hand. We expect him to launch into The Smiths' Girlfriend in a Coma.
Predictable visuals, such as a recurring scene of Mia walking toward a white light, undercut the story's poignant potential. Stilted dialogue also is problematic.
Adam refers to his alcoholic father as his "old man," which no young person has done in years. He also comes dangerously close to selling Mia on their first sexual experience by describing it as playing beautiful music together.
The adults fare best. Leonard and Enos have more electricity than the teens do. And the best performance is a low-key, authentic one by Stacy Keach as Mia's grandfather.
Lots of musical names are dropped — Yo Yo Ma, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and The Ramones — as if the film is trying to establish some serious cred. Mostly it's lip service, until a scene with Mia on the cello and Adam on guitar in an outdoor singalong of the Smashing Pumpkins' Today. It's a buoyant moment and the first time Mia and Adam's professed love for music seems convincing.
When it comes to teen romances, however, filmmakers should refer to The Fault in Our Stars as the gold standard in how to pull off a tearjerker with verve and credibility.