The high school romance film has been done a million times already, but somehow “If I Stay” manages to tell a completely refreshing and emotionally resonant story. To compliment that, de Borman’s images were also a new take on the genre. Most notably, his choice of Hawk V-Lite anamorphic lenses allowed us to experience an adolescent character drama as something much more refined. The relationships are mature, the stakes are legitimate, and the photography constantly reinforces that for us.
In the past, it seems that the use of anamorphics were reserved for epic movies only. As time wore on, they’ve come to be accepted for use in telling a wide range of stories. Robert Zemeckis remarked that his choice of anamorphics for “Forrest Gump” back in 1994 was considered pretty preposterous at the time since the entire movie was about the day-to-day drivel of a guy’s life (although admittedly Forrest did have some pretty exciting drivel). Director Paul Thomas Anderson throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s shot almost all of his movies using anamorphics because for him those are lenses that provide a cinematic look. And it’s true that there’s something special about the relationship between anamorphics and the cinema. They’ve never had much of a presence in any other medium from photography to television and even documentary. Even if it’s a subconscious effect, it’s an unspoken communication between the cinematographer and the audience. From the beautiful distortions, flares, and bokeh of anamorphics, DP’s tell the viewers they are watching a movie. It’s another tool that’s becoming more commonplace in the telling of visual stories.
Adopting these lenses from epic movies with grand themes into a character-driven plot hints to us that the film is going to be thematically complex. Those hints are then driven home with de Borman’s camerawork. He never lets the compositions drift into laziness or start to feel standard. The movie hinges on beauty. Most of the film stands as a discussion about the validity of abrasive punk rock given the meticulous nature of classical music. Who’s to say which one is more beautiful? De Borman does an amazing job of balancing that discussion by painting both genres in their best light. For the punk concerts he bathes them in a saturated green, and includes more hard light. All the while Adam still looks phenomenal at the top of his game. The camera movements are less polished, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They put us in the mindset of the punk rocker. For the classical music, the camera moves are smooth and methodical. The light is soft and elegant. Mia is photographed like a glamour model with beautiful, stark contrast. They’re markedly different, and yet, each one has its own merit; and at a glance it’s evident that they each have their own beauty.
Most of the heaviest moments of the film take place chronologically after the car crash. The long steadicam shot depicting Mia’s first out of body experience immediately communicates the weight of the situation. The continued camera movement emphasizes how things have gone beyond her control. We see that in how her own coverage is moving faster than she is. She can barely keep up with her own shot never mind the fact that her whole family is dying off.
Overall, everything cinematographically comes off as a success in this film. It’s leagues better than what one would expect from a simple teenage romance and that’s just another testament to the great work that de Borman did for this film.