Chemical Hearts (United States, 2019)August 20, 2020
It’s refreshing to find a teen romance that doesn’t feel
obligated to end with a confession of undying affection. In real life, which Chemical
Hearts seeks to emulate, high school love affairs may result in fumbling in
the dark, loss of virginity, and risky behavior, but they rarely conclude with “happily
ever after.” Writer/director Richard Tanne (adapting Our Chemical Hearts
by Aussie Krystal Sutherland) knows that, while an oil-and-water relationship between
an introverted boy and a deeply damaged girl can happen, it’s unlikely to outlast
the school year. Although Chemical Hearts willingly embraces some common
teen romance clichés, it explodes others. And, although it would be fair to say
there are “feel good” moments in the movie, the film as a whole seeks to dig a
little deeper. It’s not as effective as the effervescently witty 500 Days of Summer, but there are times when it strives for a similar sensibility.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams) is an asocial loner with strong
nerdy tendencies. He has never been in love. He has only two friends, La (Kara
Young) and Muz (C.J. Hoff), and enjoys a close relationship with his ex-juvenile
delinquent older sister, Suds (Sarah Jones). His parents, Toby (Bruce Altman)
and Gloria (Meg Gibson), are seemingly perfect. For his senior year at a northern
New Jersey high school, Henry has only one desire: edit the school’s quarterly
newspaper. He sees it as his only opportunity to unleash his inner writer. The
faculty advisor agrees but he wants to partner Henry with a newcomer to the
school, the mysterious Grace Town (Lili Reinhart).
The relationship between Henry and Grace progresses in a
manner that YA fans will find familiar. Grace has a secret and, as a result,
she keeps everyone at arm’s length. When she offers to drive Henry home, she
gives him the keys and, when they have reached their destination, she gets out
and walks back to wherever she lives. Curiosity gives way to obsession for
Henry and he begins to stalk her. Even as he falls in love with her, he unravels
the truth about her inner demons. Their relationship, although infused with
elements of genuine affection, has a toxic edge. Henry is fascinated more by his
construction of Grace and Grace is using Henry as a means to achieve some
sort of redemption. There’s considerably more complexity in this love affair than
what one normally finds on the screen in a YA production.
The chemistry between Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart goes a
long way toward selling the story. They work well together and craft a relationship
that is more often believable than not. And, at least in Reinhart’s case, there’s
growth and development of a character (Henry is the more static of the two).
Both Abrams (who had a role in the horror film Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) and Reinhart (who plays Betty in Riverdale) can capably play
younger than their actual ages (both turn 24 this year).
Reading reviews of Sutherland’s source novel, one recurring comment refers to the strength of the supporting characters in the book. Perhaps due to time limitations, this hasn’t translated to the movie. Although the secondary players are present and accounted for, none leaves much of an impression. An attempt to provide La with a romance is rushed and perfunctory. Muz has little more to do than stand in the background and look awkward. And Suds gets little more than a handful of scenes in which she provides helpful advice. The movie stands and falls exclusively based on the viewer’s reactions to Henry and Grace. Fortunately, the sentimentality and mawkishness that undermine many “heartbreaking” YA romances is kept at bay in Chemical Hearts. The result, although neither groundbreaking nor extraordinary within the genre, is sufficiently compelling to make this worthwhile for those with interest.
Chemical Hearts (United States, 2019)
Cast: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Kara Young, Coral Pena, C.J. Hoff, Shannon Walsh, Bruce Altman, Meg Gibson
Screenplay: Richard Tanne, based on the novel “Our Chemical Hearts” by Krystal Sutherland
Cinematography: Albert Salas
Music: Stephen James Taylor
U.S. Distributor: Amazon Prime
- (There are no more worst movies of Lili Reinhart)
- (There are no more better movies of Sarah Jones)
- (There are no more worst movies of Sarah Jones)