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First Posted: 8/25/2014

One scene exemplifies my anger with “If I Stay,” the latest teen weepy where Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) recalls her love story as she lingers in a coma after a horrific family car accident. A nurse urges her to fight if she wants to live. Mia, as an apparition, responds, “How do I start fighting? Someone help me!”

A good movie would show us how Mia gets the strength to fight. Since “If I Stay” is lazy and pandering, Mia must hear testimonials and cheers from boo-boo faced loved ones, only to consider joining the living after her on-again, off-again boyfriend writes a song for her.

This is our protagonist—a petulant mope whose self-esteem emerges only after endless rounds of stroking and big gestures, whose emotional mettle doesn’t come from within but from the validation of others. With “If I Stay,” narcissistic teens finally have the movie their persecuted, self-pitying egos crave; anyone else invited will need a good excuse or easy access to aspirin.

The attitude of “If I Stay” isn’t the only reason it’s terrible. It is an operation in soft-focus preposterousness from the get-go, when Mia, an unpopular high school cello virtuoso, is spotted by love-struck rock n’ roller Adam (Jamie Blackley). We’re supposed to believe that the dreamy Adam is out of Mia’s league, only Moretz, a terrific actress, looks like she just finished a Lucky photo shoot. Forget the denim and flannel. Her skin remains unblemished ivory; her hair glistens like a wheat field in a political ad. She’s a celebrity on her day off.

Mia’s self-depreciation—“Why me?” she asks Adam on their first date—only increases our aggravation. Nobody wants to buy from a salesman who isn’t confident in their own product, so it’s hard to buy Adam’s infatuation with Mia especially since Adam is beyond boring. He’s another brooding, thoughtful, and nonthreatening hunk created for mothers and their teenage daughters on desultory girls’ nights out. He’s got all the accessories: Great hair. Guitar. Absent, uncaring parents. The kid loves punk, but his band’s music resembles what Sears plays to entice kids to buy discounted jeans.

Their difference in music is the defining element of Mia and Adam’s relationship (uh-oh), which grows more tempestuous with each flashback. His band gets bigger. Her talent on cello threatens to take her beyond Portland, Oregon. But director R.J. Cutler and writer Shauna Cross, adapting Gayle Forman’s novel, limit Mia and Adam to teenage myopia. What do they risk if they’re apart? What does Adam lose if Mia dies? Why should we care?

Cutler and Cross’ answer to each question is “because.” When Mia’s family enters ER, suddenly they matter whether she’s tethered to the earth, even though her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) are little more than domesticated ex-punks. Mia’s grandfather (Stacy Keach), without prompting, disposes stoic inspiration. Throughout, Cutler inflates the thin material by directing like a hysteric, having the camera spin to represent confusion and flooding the screen with light when the final destination looms.

Thoughtfulness and originality leave early, making us feel bored, agitated, and angry. So “If I Stay” does capture what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s just the part none of us want to endure. [PG-13]

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