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'If I Stay' asks life-and-death questions, with love as a referee

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'If I Stay' is a flat-out all-in fantasy romance, an unashamed tear-jerker that is unafraid of glossy emotions
'If I Stay' shuttles between hospital tension and Mia/Adam romance — the romance is where you want to be
If deep-dish cinematic love stories are your vice of choice, there are guilty pleasures in 'If I Stay'

"If I Stay," adapted from Gayle Forman's popular young adult novel, is a flat-out, all-in fantasy romance, an unashamed tear-jerker that is unafraid of glossy emotions. So it's no surprise that it comes to us clothed in the bleak garments of death.

For in this day and age, when previous obstacles to movie passion like differences in wealth, status, religion or race are not as difficult to overcome as they've been in the past, only the threat of the end of days has enough heft to keep us involved.

Though the nominal question at the heart of "If I Stay" is whether 17-year-old Mia, suspended between life and death after a horrific car accident, will choose to stay on Earth or follow the inevitable tunnel of white light to the beckoning next world, anyone older than 7 can guess where that is going.

Rather, if deep-dish cinematic love stories are your vice of choice, the pleasure of this film is watching the interplay between Mia (luminously portrayed by Chloe Grace Moretz) and boyfriend Adam (dishy British actor Jamie Blackley) as their dreamy relationship unfolds on the screen in a series of flashbacks.

For a story like this to succeed, you have to be willing to invest heavily in these characters, to enjoy living the dream with them. It should make you happy to see Mia and Adam happy, and Moretz and Blackley ensure that's what happens.

If you are a romance fan, however, you also know that putting up with cinematic dross is part of the price to be paid. And, as directed by veteran documentarian R.J. Cutler ("The September Issue," "The World According to Dick Cheney") in his dramatic feature debut, "If I Stay" takes time to find its footing amid miscalculations and awkward moments.

As adapted by Shauna Cross, "If I Stay" is at its weakest in its opening sections introducing Mia's too-good-to-be-true family unit, which includes dad Denny (Joshua Leonard), an ex-punk rocker now devoted to fatherhood, feisty former rock fan and mom Kat ("The Killing's" Mireille Enos) and adorable younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies).

It's become a wearying trope of today's Hollywood that families, especially happy ones, are just about mandated to trade glib wisecracks, so these otherwise appealing actors take deep breaths and banter away.

In between the feeble jests we learn that high school senior Mia is a phenomenal cello player waiting to hear, perhaps that very day, from first-choice college Juilliard. And that she's been in a relationship with a rising young rocker named Adam that, for unspecified reasons, is a little rocky at the moment.

Mia, however, is not fated to open her mail that day. She and her family, out for a pleasant drive in snowy Portland (unconvincingly substituted for by Vancouver), are involved in the aforementioned accident that in effect ends Mia's life as she's known it.

Mia, however, is not dead. It is the conceit of Forman's book as well as the film that she emerges from the wreck in an out-of-body state, walking and talking and aware of everything, including her comatose physical body, but invisible to all and sundry.

Beyond distraught, Mia's second self hitches an ambulance ride to the hospital, where she learns the fate of her family members and comes to understand that the choice is hers: Should she fight to remain alive or should she follow that seductive white light (there really is one) to whatever comes next?

"If I Stay" shuttles between lachrymose developments at the hospital and a series of flashbacks that detail the Mia-Adam relationship. Not surprisingly, the romance is where you want to be.

The idea is that these two high school students live, can you believe it, in two different worlds. He is the confident Mr. Hot Indie Rocker, the guitarist and front man for an up-and-coming band called Willamette Stone, while she is a shy classical music nerd who idolizes Yo-Yo Ma and lives to play the cello.

The reality, however, is that both of these young people are so attractive and well mannered it's impossible not to think of them together.

Moretz, a 17-year-old actress who has already shown impressive range in everything from "Kick-Ass" to "Hugo" to Olivier Assayas' forthcoming "Clouds of Sils Maria," displays convincing openness and vulnerability in an irresistible performance, and Blackley has the assurance to convincingly handle lines like "Don't you get it? You're the same girl I was in love with yesterday and will be in love with tomorrow."

While every moment in "If I Stay" is not all that it might be, when these two are looking into each other's eyes, you are not going to care.

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'If I Stay'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes

Playing: In general release

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