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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘If I Stay’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Thought-provoking

For all of us who have been with someone struggling to recover from life-threatening injuries or illness, we recognize the importance of the individual's "will to live." How powerful this can be as well as the impact of what family members and visitors say to the person to help them choose to stay or to pass is difficult to assess. Although a commonly reported experience in near-death experiences, it is also difficult to understand how the soul and body can separate such that one's soul can view their own body or go to other locations and hear or see friends and loved ones. Although it is useless to use scientific instruments to measure such experiences, our artists give us a different type of insight as they create fictional tales based on actual reports.

This is what director R.J. Cutler provides for us in his emotionally charged love story If I Stay.

Based on a novel by Gayle Forman and adapted for the screen by Shauna Cross, the story focuses on high school student Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz).

Born into a bohemian musical family, Mia's father, Denny (Joshua Leonard), had been in his own rock band, and her mother, Kat (Mireille Enos), had been his most loyal fan. Though their parental guidance is lacking, they are well-intentioned and loving of their children, who also includes a beloved younger brother Teddy (Jakob Davies).

Her dad recognized Mia's genius on the cello at a young age and had willingly sacrificed to encourage her gift. Mia was entranced by the far different style of classical music and lost herself in her music.

It is Mia's beauty and love for music that caught the attention of Adam (Jamie Blackley), also a person who found music to be the defining experience in his life, though in the rock style. It is their young love story that weaves together the emotion of this tale.

Though we won't spoil the plot, it is obvious that the story is about Mia's accident that places her life in the balance. The assumption of the film is one of spiritual continuity of life after death and the ability of each of us to exercise some will in the moment of death.

Christian theology supports the first assumption, and common experience supports the second. But the question the film raises is, why would we choose to stay or to go? What is it that makes life worth living, and what gives us a release from life? Does overwhelming sorrow or loss justify choosing to leave, or does love compel us to stay? And if we choose to go, have we rejected love or chosen love in a new and greater form?

In the final analysis, these are not just theological questions to be debated but rather decisions to be experienced. It is in our own moment of choosing that we will know how we will answer them.


» When you have been with a person who was dying, how did you experience their passing? Were you aware of them in ways that did not fit your normal senses?

» With modern medicine, there is a whole new field of near-death experiences. One of the most intriguing is written by a neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander in his book Proof of Heaven. As a person who did not believe in God or life beyond death, his experience convinced him of both. How do you deal with the evidence of NDEs — near-death experiences? Do you believe them to be hallucinations or actual? On what basis do you make your statement?

» The parenting of Mia provided no spiritual guidance and encouraged her to move away from innocence. Do you believe this to be a common experience in the families in your community? What do you believe is appropriate parental guidance, and why do you answer as you do?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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