Stay a psychic trip beyond Neverland

by Glen Baity

It’s hard to describe a film like Stay. It doesn’t hold to the conventions of any particular genre, and the finer points of its plot are debatable. It toys with reality, giving the viewer a sense of disorientation, and its outcome is open to interpretation. My peers have a phrase for films of this kind, but since YES! Weekly is more or less a family publication, I don’t suppose I can print it (though I can say it rhymes with ‘mind-duck’).

Stay is the latest film from director Mark Forster, the man who previously helmed 2004’s Finding Neverland and 2001’s well-acted but generally overrated Monster’s Ball. I was a fan of the former film, and as much as the latter bothered me, it at least demonstrated that Forster doesn’t shy away from complicated issues. As ludicrous as I thought Monster’s Ball was in the end, I appreciate that it tried to hit the tough questions head-on. Since Neverland basked briefly in the Oscar glow last year, it follows that Forster’s latest film will be scrutinized more closely, and Stay has been battered by critics, many of them citing its messiness while accusing it of that greatest of artistic sins, pretension. I disagree that it’s pretentious, and I’ll contradict myself by saying I like that it’s messy ‘— somehow, just this once, coherence wouldn’t be as satisfying.

Stay tells the story of 20-year-old Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a troubled art student who speaks vaguely of his culpability for his parents’ recent deaths. He confides to his therapist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) that he intends to commit suicide on the night of his approaching 21st birthday. The film follows Sam as he scrambles to intervene, in the process unraveling the mystery of Henry’s short, sad life. Sam soon begins experiencing breaks with reality: he talks to dead people, he lives the same moments over and over, and he begins feeling as though his own identity is slipping away from him. No, it’s not Fight Club or The Sixth Sense. Stay is certainly a mystery, and it contains a lot of surprises, but if you watch it trying to figure out what’s next, you’re missing the point (and you’re in for a headache). I’ll admit up front that this isn’t an easy film to love. Stay exists as a question mark, and it doesn’t end with a period. Screenwriter David Benioff (Troy) raises questions about the nature of life, death, individuality and identity, and none of them are articulated with much clarity. This could be considered a fault, but honestly: how concise can anyone be when asking, for instance, what it means to be alive, dead, or fundamentally human? It’s hard to verbalize these thoughts without sounding like a novice existentialist, but everyone has them, and Stay pulls it off elegantly: no character ever asks any pointed questions about the nature of reality, but it’s clear they’re all thinking about it.

As a result, watching Stay is a kind of sensory experience ‘— you feel your way more than you reason your way through it. Its presentation is at turns confusing and chilling, and there’s an underlying sense of dread that permeates every second. This mood is captured perfectly by the cast, which has several good ‘— and even a few great ‘— performances, most notably by Naomi Watts and Bob Hoskins.

The charges against the film aren’t without merit ‘— it’s arguable that it keeps the viewer in the dark too long, that the ending hardly explains anything, and yes, that it’s pretentious. Even in recommending it, I find myself ill-equipped to defend my reasons for doing so. I have only the flimsiest understanding of the actual plot, which will certainly be revised upon repeat viewing. The critical consensus seems to be that the symbolism in the film amounts to so much sound and fury ‘— its presence is a distraction, masking a basic lack of meaning. Inevitably, a lot of people will walk away from Stay scratching their heads, and it’s unlikely that anyone will be ambivalent ‘— it’s a hate-it-or-love-it proposition for a film of this depth (or lack thereof, depending on your perspective). Personally, I don’t think Stay is meaningless, and I know it’s not obvious. A single viewing doesn’t seem sufficient to judge it, a quality I consider valuable (as do legions of Donnie Darko fans). Stay is one of those rare films that demands much more of its audience than a two-hour passive viewing, and even though it can be maddening to watch, it’s worth the effort in the end.

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