Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) in If I Stay (Doane Gregory/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Unlike their faceless demographic base, YA novels have matured as of late. Whereas the first wave of teen fiction in the mid-2000s was focused on fantastical elements such as vampires and dystopian sci-fi, the second onslaught has books tackling more grounded topics such as cancer (The Fault in Our Stars) and, in the case of Gayle Forman’s hit 2009 novel If I Stay, the aftermath of car accidents. After The Fault in our Stars film adaptation raked in big bucks at the box office, If I Stay seems next in line to repeat its success by taking on a youth-oriented story that still aims for highbrow drama.
The film follows 17-year-old Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz), a shy cello prodigy living with her reformed punk parents Kat (Mireille Enos) and Denny (Joshua Leonard), as well as her precocious little brother Teddy (Jakob Davies). Mia has always been too wrapped up in her instrument to pursue a social life, so she’s taken aback when brooding rocker Adam (Jamie Blackley) – the most popular boy in school – asks her out. From there, the two embark on a whirlwind romance, finding love while attempting to balance their busy schedules as Mia attempts to get into the prestigious Juilliard School. Then, one fateful day, everything changes when Mia and her family get into a horrible car wreck. When Mia awakes, she finds herself in an out-of-body experience, watching her own lifeless body being brought to the ER for emergency surgery. As her world crumbles, Mia must use her time in the in-between to search for the will to go on.
Considering how meaty the role of Mia is, If I Stay‘s producers searched high and low to find the perfect young lady to inhabit the character, auditioning stars like Dakota Fanning and Emily Browning before finally selecting the supremely talented Moretz. Though Moretz’ career really took off with her hysterical turn as Hit-Girl in 2010’s sleeper smash Kick-Ass, the young thespian had been toiling at her craft since she was a child growing up in suburban Atlanta.
“I started acting when I was 5,” explains Moretz. “I found it randomly through my brothers memorizing monologues. I started memorizing them [by ear].”
Moretz recalls that what started as a fun hobby quickly morphed into something more serious as her dedication to the craft grew.
“When I was 11 years old, I looked at my mom and [said], ‘Wait, could I make this something I do for the rest of my life?’ That was the moment I actually realized that I was doing more than gymnastics.”
Ever since that childhood revelation, Moretz has honed her skill with each new project – broadening both her horizons and her range. In playing Mia, Moretz had to face profound issues of life and loss in order to wholly inhabit the character of a traumatized girl facing her own mortality. It would be fair to call Moretz’s powerhouse performance in If I Stay the culmination of her long journey to emotional maturity as a performer a long-awaited chance to shed her child-star image.
“It’s been really hard,” admits Moretz, “I’m still fighting for every role I get … fighting the boundary of how old I can be. You always have to struggle … against the higher powers that want to keep you in a spot because it makes them feel more comfortable.”
Despite these hurdles, however, Moretz manages to maintain a strong inner compass when it comes to picking roles.
“Every project I’ve chosen [has] been something I feel I couldn’t live without,” explains Moretz. “[Vying for parts] has been hard, but it’s also been incredibly … eye opening. Without it, I wouldn’t be quite the same young woman that I am now.”
Emotional challenges aside, there were also some practical complications for Moretz – namely being able to realistically go through the motions of a classical cellist. Several set-pieces highlight Mia’s playing, leading up to a frantic performance during her climactic interview at Juilliard.
“There were seven months of training with the cello,” says Moretz of how she learned her way around the previously alien instrument. “I trained everyday, [but] … what it really was, was learning the emotionality of it and the passion that comes with being a cellist. You have to surrender your entire soul to [it].”
Still, Moretz admits that some of the more impressive playing was owed to digital effects: “The technicality came from the Frankenstein head cutting … putting [my head] onto another person’s body.”
Just as she needed to get in tune with her instrument, Moretz also had to find harmony with her co-star Blackley in order to make their star-crossed onscreen romance feel authentic.
“Everyone can draw from a modicum of self experience,” she claims. “There are so many different ways you can love someone. With Jamie and I, we became best friends and were … able to create this love relationship by … having a good time and rapping to Kanye. [But] it’s always awkward when you’re having to kiss someone and RJ [Cutler, the director] is like, ‘Turn your head to the right please!'”
Of course, Mia and Adam’s relationship isn’t all sugary sweet: The couple goes through trials and tribulations as they attempt to get on the same page regarding their future, with Mia set on Juilliard and Adam’s band making it big. Moretz was able to draw on her own relationship mores to lend her character fortitude.
“I come from the mindset that if you want it to work, it will work. Whether it be a friendship or a relationship … it’s just dedication.”
Overall, If I Stay is a powerful meditation on the possibility of an afterlife that never spoon feeds its audience easy answers.
“Even though it deals with life after death,” concurs Moretz, “it isn’t religion based. You watch it without … having one religion stuffed down your throat. You kind of just understand that there is a soul … there is love … there is passion, and that exists post-death.”
These heady questions are exemplary of the fact that this film represents the ongoing evolution of the teen romance genre from fairytales to serious, mature stories that just happen to feature young characters. Similarly, its star, the luminous Chloë Grace Moretz, is undergoing a transformation of her own: one that’s seen her shed her juvenile image and bloom into a fully realized adult. It is rare to see a film and its star share such synergy, but the stars aligned for If I Stay, and the results are nothing short of glowing.
If I Stay releases in theaters Aug. 22.