'Chemical Hearts': Film Review

Better than its obvious themes.
8/21/2020

Lili Reinhart takes on teen angst and trauma in a YA drama about ending high school, finding love and facing adult life.

Did you know that teenagers have intense emotions? If this comes as news, you may be in the target demographic for this YA drama, with Lili Reinhart as a high-school senior who has suffered a traumatic loss and Austin Abrams as the love-struck guy who helps her come back from it.

For anyone over 20, Chemical Hearts will land as a better-than-average version of an obvious story. It leans into all the tropes of the teens-facing-life-and-death genre, from the poetry they read to the clumsy sex to awkward texts. Writer and director Richard Tanne (Southside With You, about Barack and Michelle Obama's first date) takes what sounds like a terrible idea and transforms it into a sleek, well-played romance that largely makes the cliches believable.

Based on Krystal Sutherland's 2016 YA novel, Our Chemical Hearts, the film begins with a voiceover from shy, would-be writer Henry (Abrams). "You are never more alive than when you're a teenager," he says, and goes on to talk about how every new emotion, every new grade, seems searing and important. Now and then the film reverts to that kind of bluntness, telling us flat-out what the characters are experiencing, but mostly improves on the stilted, unpromising start.

Henry is about to take over as editor of the school paper, when transfer student Grace (Reinhart) is brought in to be co-editor. Grace walks with a cane, wears oversized flannel shirts, and would just as soon be surly as not. Henry falls for her. She loans him the book of Neruda poems she has been reading — these two are just that sensitive and literary — and a tentative friendship begins. Grace is clearly grappling with something, and the first red flag pops up when she tells Henry she doesn't like to drive and won't say why. His online search reveals that she was involved in a car accident, and from there the backstory is fairly easy for us to guess.

Fortunately, the plot takes second place to the natural, modulated acting. Abrams underplays Henry. He isn't a flashy character, and the actor resists any tendency to chew the scenery even when Henry is most distressed about Grace's emotional distance and her pain.

But Reinhart dominates, delivering on the promise of her varied roles as good-girl Betty in the series Riverdale and the stripper Annabelle in Hustlers. Here she pulls off some absurd dialogue. Searching for a theme for the final issue of the paper, she finds it in a syllabus that includes Romeo and Juliet, Goethe's Young Werther, Catcher in the Rye and Ordinary People, all involving suicide. "Being young is so painful," she says, and it's a credit to Reinhart's grounded performance that the line seems potent instead of laughable.

Even she can't get past some of the overblown language, though. You have to be very young not to roll your eyes when Grace looks at the stars and tells Henry "We're just a collection of atoms that come together for a brief period," and then are "dispersed into nothingness."

Reinhart also has one brief, terrific scene with no dialogue, when Henry secretly watches her on a track, trying to run as she did before the accident. The scene captures Grace's desperate wish to go back, and the physical and emotional pain of her new reality. The film could have used more of those affecting moments and less of the overt explanation of feelings. That lack of freshness keeps Chemical Hearts in its niche, John Green territory.

Henry's older sister, a nursing student, tells him twice that love and heartbreak cause chemical changes in the body. The "blissed-out feelings from dopamine" that you experience when in love are replaced by "stressed-out hormones" when you're dumped, she says. That information gives Tanne an excuse to drop in a few psychedelic graphics here and there to illustrate those medical changes, but they are intrusive flashes in an otherwise straightforward style. The film is so sharply focused that there is not a single word about college, the obsession of most high school seniors, until the very end. Yet Tanne glides along smoothly enough to get past those odd lapses.

With Chemical Hearts, which is premiering on Prime Video, Amazon seems to be taking a page from the Netflix playbook of polished young adult films like To All the Boys I've Loved Before, but in a much darker vein.

Production Company: Amazon Studios, Page Fifty-Four Pictures

Distributor: Amazon Studios

Cast: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Pena

Director and Writer: Richard Tanne

Producers: Alex Saks, Richard Tanne

Cinematography: Albert Salas

Production Designer: Lucio Seixas

Costume Designer: Vanessa Porter

Editor: JC Bond

Music: Stephen James Taylor

Casting: Lauren Bass, Jordan Bass

93 minutes