Chemical Hearts (United States, 2019)

August 20, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Chemical Hearts Poster

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)

Run Time: 1:33
U.S. Release Date: 2020-08-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Genre: Drama/Romance
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1