Heaven or Love?: Moretz is wonderful, even if "If I Stay" manipulates tear ducts

If I Stay (2014)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Swap out cancer for a coma and "If I Stay" could have been another good example of a dewy-eyed teen weeper with a talented star like "The Fault in Our Stars." An adaptation of Gayle Forman's 2009 YA novelthe first of two, if that's considered a spoiler—the film could not be more luminously gauzy and earnestly acted. The lovely Chloë Grace Moretz, only 17 years old, is one of the few shining constants elevating this treacle, resisting any false, inauthentic notes and keeping the good will going for a while before the mawkish theatrics take over. A tearjerker can be skillfully carried out without spotting the filmmaker's strings, but "If I Stay" often falls into the trap of using too many desperate ploys designed to get us to cry buckets.

Awaiting a letter from Julliard on a snow day in Portland, Ore., impressionable, cello-playing 17-year-old Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) goes for a drive with her family, former rocker parents Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard) and younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies). All of the teenager's talents could be taken from her in an instant when a truck runs them on the road. Mia wakes up in the snow barefoot, caught in limbo and watching as paramedics surround her own body and putting her in an ambulance, but there are no signs of her parents and brother. The real Mia is unconscious, while the out-of-her-body Mia must watch her friends and family members sit and hope she wakes up. The film then flashes back to happier times when Mia first met Adam (Jamie Blackley), a dreamy high schooler who took an interest in her while walking past the music classroom and watching her lose herself in the music she strums with the cello. They don't immediately have much in common; she is an accomplished cellist and likes listening to classical music (and her school locker is littered with stickers of prodigious cellist Yo-Yo Ma), and he's the frontman for a rock group, performing in dive bars and expanding its popularity in the Pacific Northwest. From their meet-cute to their falling-outs, Mia and Adam are still meant to be, so will she stay and live with her love or does the good really die young?

Director R.J. Cutler (the 2009 Anna Wintour documentary "The September Issue") displays a clear vision, never losing sight of the story's tragic core. Mia may never see her family or Adam again. Decisions to stay with Adam or to go off to Julliard to pursue her dream as a cellist might no longer be options. She now needs to fight to wake up, but even if she does, will her relationship with Adam still be worth it? It's hard to say whether it's due to the source material of Gayle Forman's text or the screenplay by Shauna Cross (who wrote 2009's under-loved "Whip It" and 2012's mediocre "What to Expect When You're Expecting"), but here on screen, the time-flipping structure renders the storytelling uneven. Often awkwardly staged, the present scenes of "Spirit Mia" taking a while to understand why no one is answering her and then running down hospital wings verge on hokey at times. There is also the out-of-the-blue handling of a compassionate nurse (Aisha Hinds) and Willow (Lauren Lee Smith), a hospital-working family friend, who feel undernourished. This isn't to say that there aren't moving moments filled in by the actors, but at a point, the film becomes overkill, even as shamelessly overt emotional manipulation goes. Mia's voice-over narration spells out every thought and emotion in wordy, overstated fashion, and Adam's sweet nothings may earn as many eye rolls as swoons. A few of the directorial choices—for one, Moretz is positioned to walk toward a literal white light as if she has made her final decisionundercut any subtlety or poignancy the film might have had to the point that piercingly grim revelations are treated and felt as non-events. Facing such subject matter head-on is chancy, but it's actually dramatically inert.

With undeniable charisma, grace, sensitivity, truth and an innate intelligence in essaying the angelic and mature Mia, Chloë Grace Moretz keeps proving she is a gifted young actress here to stay. Mia might be a slight outsider in her own family by never breaking the rules and having her goals all set, but it does make sense why her choice of staying or going on to the afterlife would be so difficult. Moretz manages to take mushy material and make certain scenes look more powerful and grounded than they should be; that's just how good she is. She and Jamie Blackley, a magnetic actor in his own right and more than just a handsome face as the initially ideal Adam, even make for an appealing couple whose chemistry may not be intensely burning, but they are quite sweet together and give us enough reason to care. Mia and Adam's relationship seems like one with its ups and downs that exist naturally beyond the plot, even if the car accident seems to come at the wrong time when both teens have just had a falling-out over her Julliard audition and his time on the road with his band. Playing the epitome of cool, fun-loving, but still sagacious parents who used to sow their wild oats before they had Mia, the eternally solid Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard leave memorably affecting imprints. Stacy Keach has a couple of nice scenes as Mia's Gramps, so it's all his doing that he can deliver a touching bedside monologue, and Liana Liberato also brings levity as Mia's best friend Kim.

Music is an integral component to this romantic/tragic drama. Mia tries to impress Adam by dressing up for Halloween as Debbie Harry and he as Ludwig van Beethoven. Ane Brun and Linnéa Olsson's cover of Beyoncé's "Halo" is beautifully fragile, and Blackley leads Mia in a rousing, stripped-down cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' "Today" during a fireside family gathering. Otherwise, the generic music score by Heitor Pereira wades in the schmaltz as if to jump down our throats and force us to feel something. Capped off with an infuriatingly abrupt, anticlimactic cut to black, a film that wants to tackle the choice between life and death should dig deeper and sting like a bee. "If I Stay" may be a dream come true to its target demographic who has always wanted a supernatural twist on a Nicholas Sparks-ish romance after the Zac Efron-headliner "Charlie St. Cloud" and doesn't mind being manipulated for a good cry. For everyone else, it mostly earns crocodile tears, despite wonderful performances.

Grade: C +