Chemical Hearts

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Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart in 'Chemical Hearts'.
Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart in 'Chemical Hearts'.
Photo: Cara Howe/Amazon Studios


3/5 Stars


Henry Page (Austin Abrams) is a teenager who loves to write, but feels as if nothing substantial has happened to him until new student Grace Town (Lili Reinhart) transfers to his school. Grace has a troubled past, but the two start falling in love when they are selected to work on the school newspaper together.


At first glance, Chemical Hearts seems like your average teen drama: boy means girl, girl changes boy, they fall in love and stay together. But the beauty of this film is that it completely subverts what you think you know about the genre and gives you something that is even more beautiful.

Chemical Hearts is essentially about the tumultuous teenager years – a time in your life when you feel like you are stuck in a weird space between where you've been and where you are going. In the film, they refer to it as "teenage limbo". And they do an excellent job of conveying just how deeply emotional and chaotic this time is.

The tone of the film is quite sad, and it reminded me a lot of the teen movies that were popular in the 80s, but it seemed to follow less of a cookie-cutter pattern. The entire time I was watching it, I kept trying to predict what would happen next. Every time I was wrong, which made the film more enjoyable.

The story is told from the perspective of Henry, who seems to live quite a charmed life – his parents are happily married, he has an older sister who is a neurosurgeon, the family gets along with each other, he lives in a big house, he has a clear sense of purpose and he has a solid group of friends. But what he craves most is for something exciting to happen to him so he can feel justified in becoming a writer.

Henry, himself, is a solid character. He is complex and fleshed out well. Even if his motivations might be questionable at times, you feel as if you understand him as he falls within this confusing time of being a teenager.

Austin Abrams, who plays Henry, is also an actor who has shown his subtle but emotional range in various projects such as Brad's Status and Euphoria, and he was perfectly cast in this role. The protagonist in teen dramas tends to come off as self-righteous or melodramatic – he was neither. In many ways, as Henry fell in love with Grace, you feel as if you do as well.

Grace Town is an extremely meaty character and could have easily fitted in the one-dimensional "manic pixie dream girl" trope, but she does not. Grace is not depicted as just a character to help Henry grow, neither is she his saving 'grace'. She is a fully-formed character who is experiencing real grief and is still forced to live and deal with the average teenage experience through this time. The tragedy that led to Grace transferring to Henry's school is a mystery that threads through the first half of the film, but it does not feel as if it is dragged out. As Grace becomes more comfortable with Henry, she reveals more information about what happened to her and her current circumstances.

It is also extremely realistic that Henry's love, in turn, could not save Grace from her grief. It is something that you cannot distract yourself from, it is something that she has to deal with, but the relationship with Henry might have been a catalyst to convince her to actively focus on making it through her grief. If this film was told from the perspective of Grace, this would probably only be a chapter in her entire journey.

It's very difficult to think of someone other than Lili Reinhart in this role. She was also a producer on the film, and it seems as if this was a passion project of hers. Reinhart is extremely talented as we saw last year in Hustlers, and once she is finished playing Betty Cooper on Riverdale, she could have a career similar to Blake Lively or Shailene Woodley. In this role, she injects so much emotion that even though you did not see the tragedy happening on screen, you see the pain as if you were there as well, through her performance. I can't wait for her to start winning all the awards later in her career.

One of the weaker aspects of the film, was the supporting characters. Even after seeing the entire film, I cannot name one of the other characters' names. They were all one-dimensional and simply served to prop up the two leads, especially Henry. There was a side plot with one of his friends rekindling a romance with a girl that was also on the school paper but very little context was given, and you didn't really feel invested in their romance. His other friend just popped up to give suggestions to Henry, now and then. And Henry's sister was the Yoda role, a wise mentor with all the answers; she could advise Henry on heartbreak and how the love affected the teenage brain, because she's a neurosurgeon. It would have been more beneficial to see more layers to these characters or see them as not just simply there to serve Henry.

The film was co-written and directed by Richard Tanne, whose previous film was Southside With You, the story of Barack and Michelle Obama's first date. It is evident that he is good at creating capsule romance dramas, with the film centering on one specific relationship and two strong leads. This is what he has done with Chemical Hearts. The two central themes of the film is grief and teenage emotion, and Tanne has done such an excellent job of conveying both of these in a beautiful and complex way, that you cannot help but be sucked into his world.



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