I once read a Buddhist story that I will try very hard not to screw up here. A family went to a priest and asked for a blessing written on a scroll. When they returned to pick it up, the priest had written “Grandfather dies. Father dies. Son dies. Grandson dies.” The family was pretty ticked, since apparently they were expecting one of those happy handmade signs you see on Pinterest and Etsy. The priest offered to reorder the blessing in a way to better suit the family, but he thought his original was a pretty good deal. If things happened in the sequence he had written, the family would avoid the worst grief life has to offer.
I thought of that story during one scene in “If I Stay.” A grandfather, played by Stacy Keach, sits by the bedside of his granddaughter Mia, who’s in a coma after a major car accident that killed her parents and brother. Keach is a masterful actor (and a versatile one; in addition to his much-celebrated stage work, his IMDB profile goes back to 1967 and includes Shakespeare, “30 Rock” and voice work in “Rugrats”) and this scene, which could have easily tipped into soap opera schlock, instead elevates the film to a height rarely seen in movies marketed to young adults.
Keach tells the girl that he wants her to live, but that he understands if she doesn’t want to return to a life that would be unrecognizable to her. Keach’s character now lives in a world where the Buddhist priest’s blessing is an unimaginable happiness; he has lost a son and now faces the loss of another generation. And yet he still tells Mia that if she can’t bear the pain of living, he’ll bear the pain of losing her.
We all make sacrifices for our kids — or, in this case, our kid’s kids — but here’s a man living in agony who is willing to take on MORE agony to spare his granddaughter. It is to Keach’s credit that this small scene becomes the heart of the film. It takes the tragedy and shows how it will ripple and rip through everyone gathered at the hospital waiting to see if the worst will happen.
A weaker script wouldn’t have included the scene, because many films about teenagers consider the adults in their lives evil, annoying or irrelevant. A weaker actor would have made it a moment for cheap tears. What we get, though, is a look at someone desperately wishing for a blessing that will never be his.
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