If I Stay
Mia Hall (Chloë Grace Moretz) has it all: ex-punker ‘rents turned middle-class homeowners; a supportive bestie; a saccharine singer-songwriter boyfriend, Adam (Jamie Blackley), who’s about to get signed; and she’s a self-taught virtuoso cellist on the verge of getting accepted into Juilliard. But if she gets in she’d have to leave her lifelong Portland hipster support system behind to pursue her own talents and dreams. And the day of Juilliard’s decision, her whole family has a tragic head-on collision while driving a snowy road. Everyone dies except Mia. Not a spoiler.
If I Stay, an adaptation of a Gayle Forman bestselling Young Adult novel, isn’t intended, or marketed, for adults. Like the book, the movie’s about teens and for tweens. So we want to be fair to a genre that encourages kids to read.
Yet, we want to be fair with the youth of today about their actual tomorrow. Or their perceptions of tomorrow, which this film is struggling with, specifically the reproduction of an entirely white, middle-class experience. This struggle is both the biggest strength and largest blind spot of the film; it does something relatively amazing, yet it knows not what it does.
There are four oscillating tensions in this movie. First, this is an out-of-body experience film: as the only survivor of the car crash, Mia has to decide if she wants to live or die. Second, this film is Annie in reverse, a riches to rags story. Mia has everything and suddenly becomes an orphan. Bracket this for a minute. Third, as Mia and Adam fall in love with each other at first glance—while she practices cello, obvi—their biggest conflict is Dueling Success Stories: his versus hers edition. Essentially it’s a gender conflict. His success solidifies their relationship; hers jeopardizes their future together—that they might become the next generation of her own musical-minded parents and have amazingly gifted children, too!
Lastly, this is a film about deciding which college to go attend, not if Mia will go to college. It’s a foregone conclusion from the beginning that Mia is headed for higher ed. And access to college is the vehicle of middle-class reproduction, de facto white privilege. Since college is a given, the struggle is making a choice.
Thus, this film imagines that a white woman wanting to leave her idyllic family and her rockstar boyfriend to go East to pursue her own talent necessitates that everyone, boyfriend excluded, die in a car crash. (We’re not making this up.) Moreover, the prize for becoming an orphan is student debt. This might be the real crisis for the young adult audience—debt is the only future (‘rents or nah). Not jobs. Think about it, how many successful cellists do you know?
Yet, what’s fascinating about the film and the crisis of reproduction of white privilege, is the release date: two weeks to the day after a cop shot 18-year-old Michael Brown six times in Ferguson, Missouri. Without getting into the national protests and the nuances of the events, factually, the conversations regarding Brown, Ferguson and blackness all have to do with middle-class reproduction. Specifically the reproduction of black middle-classness.
Mike Brown was supposed to start college two days after his death. (Sound familiar?) In a city where 92.7 percent of arrests involve blacks, his was a success story. But where the Brown family lost their future, their potential, Mia lost her past—her future, her home, her boyfriend and college options are all just fine.
If I Stay, as a metaphor for the terminal crisis of white reproduction and privilege, is amazingly timed historically with national attention on, and therefore a desire to change, the limited access many blacks have to middle-class security. That is to say, If I Stay is clearly focused on the right topic of our times—the shrinking middle-class; it’s entirely correct to note this is happening by both death and debt. Yet blacks have been struggling with death and debt far more intensely than post-punk nuclear families. But, as we know, Hollywood just doesn’t make those films. For the record, neither do most book publishers. That’s why we call it a crisis of reproduction. We can’t explain the stories we don’t tell to our kids.