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Film review: A sweet Moretz makes overly syrupy 'If I Stay' worth staying for

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'Tis clearly the season for exceedingly attractive young adults in mortal peril.

Just two months ago, we had the charming Shailene Woodley as a teen cancer patient, fighting for time while learning about life and love in "The Fault in Our Stars." Last week, we had Aussie heartthrob Brenton Thwaites in "The Giver," risking his life for the sake of truth and memory.

And now we have the sweet Chloe Grace Moretz in "If I Stay," spending the movie in a state of limbo between life and death, after a catastrophic accident shatters her comfy world.

Like all successful YA novels brought to screen, "If I Stay," based on the 2009 teen tearjerker by Gayle Forman, brings with it a ready-made audience. All the filmmakers need do is cast the most appealing couple they can find and stay faithful to the story, and the kids should be happy.

It's safe to say director R.J. Cutler has done that — Moretz is beautiful to look at, and as her rocker boyfriend, Jamie Blackley is satisfyingly sensitive and hunky. And they have good lips. This is one screen couple that knows how to kiss.

If only the dialogue worked as well. Shauna Cross' script lapses into syrupy platitudes far too often. Just as a scene is building, you may suddenly feel like you've walked into a life-size Hallmark card.

Moretz plays Mia, a beautiful young cellist whose locker at high school is lined with "I Love Yo Yo Ma" stickers. Mia's a classical music nerd. This is tough to believe, first of all because her parents are totally cool former rocker types, and even more because Moretz, with those deep eyes and perfect, pillowy lips, just doesn't look one iota like a nerd. Nice try, though — and if she can make the cello seem cool to the younger generation, all the better.

One day at school, gorgeous Adam, a soft bang falling over his left eye just so, spies her playing the cello from a distance, and falls for her on the spot, even though he hangs with the cool crowd. He even buys tickets to the symphony for their first date. (Note to youngsters: This does not happen in any high school we've ever seen — not even on "Glee.")

Mia falls for Adam just as fast. "You know how you meet someone and they just already are the person they're meant to be?" she asks dreamily, in voiceover.

We see this happy meeting in flashback, because Mia is looking back at life from the precipice. That horrific accident has left her trying to decide, in the words of the Clash song, "Should I stay or should I go?" (The fact that the song isn't used seems a wasted opportunity.)

It's hardly a spoiler to say much of the film takes place in a hospital, and the combination of pretty girl, hospital corridors and voiceovers recalls nothing so much as an extra-long episode of "Grey's Anatomy" (Meredith Grey even had an episode where she, too, crossed over into that middle ground between life and death.)

There's no question that you'll cry at some point during this film. Beautiful young people on the brink of death will do that. But the film could have done much better with a dry-eyed editor for that dialogue. Even an actress as genuine as Mireille Enos, who plays Mia's mother in the film's best performance, has you wincing a bit when she says, empathetically, "What can I say, baby? True love's a bitch."

Stacy Keach also provides touching support as Mia's grandfather, admirably keeping a tricky bedside speech restrained and moving. But the film lives or dies (sorry) on the strength of its young lovers. And especially Moretz. Though she crinkles her nose a little too often and a little too consciously, she's enticing enough to make you hope that she, well, stays.

"If I Stay," a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "thematic elements and some sexual material." Running time: 106 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.

_

MPAA definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

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