Dear The Juilliard School,
Your name has become synonymous with the type of excellence that implies prestige, superiority and exclusivity. You are widely regarded as one of the foremost learning institutions providing education to the highest calibre of young performing artists from around the world. With an admissions acceptance rate hovering around 7%, it’s no wonder your audition process is notoriously intense. In books, television and movies, when a character is trying to get into Juilliard, it is shorthand for a person with slavish dedication and phenomenal talent. It’s unfortunate, then, that your name goes slumming in the mawkish teen weeper If I Stay, where it gets dragged through cloying, pedestrian sewage and drowns in sentimental cliches.
Good luck getting rid of that stink.
Mia is a cello phenom living in Portland with her ex-punk rocker parents and tow-headed little brother. Her moody boyfriend, Adam is a rising rock star who she hasn’t seen in weeks since their fight about you, Juilliard. See, if you accept Mia as a student, Adam won’t continue their relationship, because long-distance is just too hard for him. Instead of waiting at home in anticipation of an acceptance letter from you, she joins her family on a snowy car ride that turns tragic when they are struck by another vehicle. While in a coma, Mia has an out of body experience that gives her the power to decide whether she should live or die.
If I could go back, I would have brought a bottle of Jack Daniels with me to the theatre to play the If I Stay Drinking Game. Had I taken a swig every time your name was mentioned, I would have been blissfully wasted by the end of the first act, saving me from another hour of maudlin inevitibility. The booze would have helped numb the repetitive stress that my eyeballs sustained every time I rolled them back in my head upon hearing faux-spirational lines like, “sometimes you make choices, sometimes choices make you”. Or when the middle-aged, African-American nurse, in full Magical Negro mode, whispers to the comatose Mia, “You control this, baby. Whatever you got left in you, pull it out now.”
On second thought, I should have brought chloroform.
If I Stay is told mainly in flashbacks; Mia’s parents raising her in dive bars, Mia’s parents settling down but never losing their punk edge despite their hippie-dippy parenting style, Mia and Adam falling in love. The story’s naïveté is matched only by its dullness. Some of your former playwright students, Wendy Wasserman (The Heidi Chronicles), John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), and Tony Kushner (Angels In America), employed flashbacks in fresh and thought-provoking ways, two qualities If I Stay’s comatose script (based on the novel by Gayle Forman) sorely needed. Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays Mia, showed early promise in Let Me In and Kick Ass, but fails to deliver here. She spends most of the movie with furrowed brow, forever on the verge of tantrum while running through hospital hallways. It’s a soap-operatic performance worthy of an after-school special. The saving grace, you might be happy to know, is that at least the soundtrack and score were exceptional. Or maybe they just stood out so much because they felt like they came from another, better film.
I realize that If I Stay was not targeted for my demographic, people over forty who like good movies. But when I was 14-years-old, one of my favourite films was, and still is, Running On Empty. It shares similar themes with If I Stay, yet doesn’t wallow in hackneyed sentimentality. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it’s the story of a young piano prodigy who is constantly on the run with his fugitive, ex-hippie parents who are wanted for bombing a federal building to protest the Vietnam War. The teenage son, played by River Phoenix, must decide whether to keep running with his parents and brother, or attend Juilliard and risk never seeing them again. It’s a quietly complex character study masquerading as a coming of age movie, with politics, romance and nary a false note. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, as was River Phoenix for Best Supporting Actor, proof that it’s possible to make a movie about love, loyalty, and loss, for adults and teens, that condescend to neither.
Of course none of this is your fault, but brand association is something you should be more concerned with. On the ride home from seeing If I Stay, I asked my 13-year-old niece if she even knows what Juilliard is. Her response? “Oh yeah, it was in one of the High School Musical movies.”
So maybe you consider this a step up.