Did you know that teenagers have intense emotions? If this comes as news, you might be part of the target demographic for this YA drama, with Lili Reinhart as a high school student who suffered a traumatic loss and Austin Abrams as the loving guy helping her come back. .
For anyone over 20 years old, Chemical Hearts will land as a better-than-average version of an obvious story. It delves into all the genre tropes of teens faced with life and death, from the poetry they read to awkward sex to awkward texts. Writer and director Richard Tanne (South side with you, about Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date) takes what seems like a terrible idea and turns it into a sleek, well-played romance that makes the cliches largely believable.
The bottom line
Better than its obvious themes.
Based on the 2016 novel YA by Krystal Sutherland, Our chemical hearts, the film begins with a voice-over from the shy and future writer Henry (Abrams). “You are never more alive than when you are a teenager,” he says, and goes on to explain how each new emotion, each new school year seems hot and important. Every now and then the movie returns to that kind of franchise, telling us up front what the characters are going through, but mostly improving on the stuffy and unpromising start.
Henry is set to take over as editor of the school newspaper, when transfer student Grace (Reinhart) is appointed co-editor. Grace walks with a cane, wears oversized flannel shirts, and would be as quickly sullen as not. Henry falls in love with her. She lends him Neruda’s book of poems she’s read – those two are just so sensitive and literary – and a friendship attempt begins. Grace is clearly struggling with something, and the first red flag appears when she tells Henry that she doesn’t like driving and won’t say why. Her online research reveals that she was involved in a car accident, and from there the story is pretty easy for us to guess.
Fortunately, the plot takes a back seat in front of the natural and modulated acting. Abrams plays down Henry. She’s not a flashy character and the actor resists any tendency to chew the set even when Henry is most distressed by Grace’s emotional distance and pain.
But Reinhart dominates, keeping the promise of her varied roles as good girl Betty on the show. Riverdale and stripper Annabelle in scammers. Here she succeeds in an absurd dialogue. Looking for a theme for the latest issue of the article, she finds it in a program that includes Romeo and Juliet, by Goethe Young Werther, Catcher in the Rye and Ordinary people, all involving suicide. “Being young is so painful,” she says, and it’s thanks to Reinhart’s performance on the ground that the line feels powerful instead of laughable.
Even she can’t get past some exaggerated language, however. You must be very young not to roll her eyes when Grace looks at the stars and says to Henry “We are just a collection of atoms that come together for a brief period” and then are “scattered in nothingness”.
Reinhart also has a brief and formidable scene without dialogue, when Henry secretly watches her on a runway, trying to run like she did before the crash. The scene captures Grace’s desperate desire to turn back the clock and the physical and emotional pain of her new reality. The film could have used more of those moving moments and less of the overt explanation of the feelings. This lack of freshness keeps Chemical Hearts in its niche, the territory of John Green.
Henry’s older sister, a nursing student, tells him twice that love and grief cause chemical changes in the body. The “dopamine-induced blissful feelings” you get when you’re in love are replaced by “stressed hormones” when you’re dumped, she says. This information gives Tanne an excuse to add some psychedelic graphics here and there to illustrate these medical changes, but they’re intrusive flashes in an otherwise simple style. The movie is so focused that there isn’t a single word about college, most high school kids’ obsession, until the very end. Still, Tanne glides smoothly enough to overcome these odd gaps.
With Chemical hearts, which premieres on Prime Video, Amazon appears to be taking a page out of the Netflix playbook of refined young adult movies 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
Actors: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Pena
Director and screenwriter: Richard Tanne
Producers: Alex Saks, Richard Tanne
Photography: Albert Salas
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Publisher: JC Bond
Music: Stephen James Taylor
Casting: Lauren Bass, Jordan Bass