Child actors can have a tough time transitioning into adult careers, their charm often evaporating with the onset of puberty. But for Chloë Grace Moretz, the trouble isn’t growing pains; she’s just overqualified for the roles Hollywood tends to offer young women her age. Now 17, the one-time adolescent starlet has apparently graduated to the ghetto of teen-lit adaptations—a genre/craze that has little use for the snarling personality she exhibited in everything from the Kick-Ass movies to 30 Rock. Based on a bestseller by Gayle Forman, the severely drippy YA romance If I Stay casts Moretz as Mia, a painfully shy high-school cellist who catches the eye of the coolest kid in class, teenage rock star Adam (Jamie Blackley). “It’s too late,” this young Mick Jagger says to his socially invisible crush. “I see you.” And Moretz can do nothing but blush, her character overwhelmed with smitten disbelief that such a dreamy dude could instantly appreciate her hidden virtues. It’s the narrative equivalent of a One Direction song: Mia doesn’t know she’s a beautiful, and that’s what makes her beautiful.
Carefully calibrated to meet the supposed demands of its demographic, If I Stay boasts a romantic dynamic not so different from the one that powered The Fault In Our Stars, which similarly paired a smart, sensitive wallflower with a hunk who just immediately gets her. But that movie—or more importantly, the John Green novel from which it was adapted—couched its fairy-tale elements in the harsh, hyper-specific realities of living with cancer. If I Stay, by contrast, treats a love of music as its X factor, but there’s no sign here that anyone involved, including director R.J. Cutler and screenwriter Shauna Cross, share the characters’ personal connection to the art form. How do we know Mia is a classical-music fanatic? She raves about Beethoven and Yo Yo Ma. And how do we know her ex-rocker parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) are still hip, despite their minivan and suburban lifestyle? They name-drop Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop. Adam, meanwhile, confesses that he first picked up a guitar after hearing “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Did Forman consult a stack of Rolling Stone magazines every time she needed a keyword?
Perhaps fearful that her puppy-love plot wasn’t distinctive enough, the author also employs a mystical hook: Most of the present-day scenes take place in the aftermath of a car accident, with the heroine having an out-of-body experience; in between flashbacks to her up-and-down relationship, Mia phantoms around a hospital, checking in on her own comatose body and those of her critically wounded family. Will she choose to confront a difficult, uncertain future on Earth or head toward the light? A real turducken of a teen movie, If I Stay stuffs a tale of budding musicianship into a banal romance and then stuffs that combination into a maudlin supernatural melodrama. Its biggest folly, however, is completely squandering the gifts of its lead actress. Moretz, who can do more with a sneer than most of her peers manage with pages of dialogue, seems stifled by a role that mostly requires her to just swoon and fret. If there’s an upside, it’s that it won’t be long before she’s too old to play walking clichés of sensitive youth. Adulthood, and the new range of roles it will offer, should suit her well.