Film Review: Chemical Hearts
Director: Richard Tanne
Page Fifty Four Pictures
Streaming on Amazon Prime: 8.21
The delay of all major blockbusters this year has made for quite an abnormal experience for us critics. A good example of that would be the fact that I’ve only seen one major movie in 2020 so far that was based on a superhero—but I’ve seen approximately 312 teen romances, only one of which did not involve mental illness in some form. And Chemical Hearts isn’t even the first of them to come out this week.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior, a writer and a hopeless romantic, though he has yet to experience being in love. That is, until he meets Grace (Lili Reinhart, Riverdale, Hustlers), a beautiful but enigmatic transfer student. When Grace and Henry are chosen to co-edit the school paper, he is immediately drawn to this mysterious newcomer. As he learns the heartbreaking secret that has changed her life, he finds himself falling in love with her—or at least with the person he thinks she is.
Director Richard Tanne (Southside With You) moves Chemical Hearts at a deliberate pace, letting things unfold naturally, and sometimes it feels almost frustratingly slow in exactly the way a first love does when you just want it to jump forward. But Tanne takes the time to make every little moment that Henry shares with Grace play out as special, and he nicely captures that feeling of being in love with being in love.
Abrams gives a very capable performance as Henry, but this is Reinhart’s film all the way. This is actually a credit to how well the character of Henry works, because we effectively see Grace only through his eyes, and it’s easy to see why Henry is so enamored. It’s a breakout role for the young actress that should increase her profile, especially since she served as an executive producer.
Chemical Hearts manages to mostly avoid melodrama, but it does have a few iffy moments, and the monologuing gets to be a bit much. The screenplay, adapted from the novel Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, feels a bit weighted down by the responsibility of making sure that the title is clearly understood. While it works reasonably well when it’s connected to Henry’s writings, at a certain point it starts to feel a bit too forced, and I wanted to scream “we get it already!”
I’m not sure if Chemical Hearts is trying to be a teenager movie, or a movie for people who used to be teenagers, but while it plays to both, it’s unlikely to be a favorite of either. I certainly found it to be involving, but it was also quite depressing. It’s more firmly grounded in reality and truth than this week’s other big teen romance, Words on Bathroom Walls. If I’m being honest, I’d be more likely to watch the other film again and complain about its frustrating contrivances than rush out to experience and appreciate the more honest melancholy of Chemical Hearts a second time. –Patrick Gibbs