Review: Chemical Hearts (2020) – Teenage Philosophy

Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart in Chemical Hearts

Just before 2020 took a nosedive and we all rushed inside our houses and plugged ourselves into Amazon Prime, Netflix and other streaming services, Netflix released the similarly themed yet vastly superior All The Bright Places onto their service. Much like Chemical Hearts it handled mental illness, grief and depression delicately yet never with kid gloves. It didn’t wallow in its themes, instead highlighting the brightness that its characters were missing through beautiful cinematography and a couple of dynamic lead performances. Chemical Hearts sinks into this notion of depression through a dour colour palette, some bizarre musical choices and a lead performance that serves more as a overly invested therapist than any kind of teenage love interest, in a film that falls into many of the teen romance tropes it seems to be actively trying to avoid.

Henry (Austin Abrams) works better on paper than he does in real life, something he happily admits. He is awkward and quiet but when he writes he can always find the words. When he is chosen to co-edit the school newspaper with the solitary and closed off Grace (Lili Reinhart) he finds himself drawn to her, either because of their similar interests or the puzzle she represents. All in all, its a concerning start to a deeply unsettling romance, the opposite of a meet cute, the kind of thing any efficient stalker would consider amourous. The more Henry learns about Grace’s tragic past the closer they become and the more he tries to be whats missing in her life.

Based on Crystal Sutherland’s novel Our Chemical Hearts and directed by Richard Tanne, Grace and Henry’s story has a narrow focus. While a high school coming of age story, it is less interested in their futures as it is their pasts. This means that Tanne (who also writes here) gives plenty of time to flesh out where these two have come from but he does so by having Henry sulk around murky New Jersey locations as he treats his newfound crush like a piece of homework, a subject to be studied. Ultimately Grace feels more like Henry’s history coursework than someone for whom we should feel empathy or understanding. Tanne embraces Henry’s worst impulses in a script that tries desperately to paint him as a hopeless romantic and while Abrams attempts to make this version of Henry likeable through his stuttering yet determined old soul performance, the script brings out all the worst elements of bad teen dramas before it. Despite being integral to the plot, an early visit to a secluded cemetery only seems to further the notion that this is all just a little bit, wrong.

While Reinhart brings the best out of Grace in a performance that doesn’t match the film it belongs to, she never gets the chance to really explore who Grace is outside of the one thing that makes her ‘special’, her grief. Both Grace and Henry are defined by trauma either through Henry’s heartbreak or Grace’s loss and when the simple concept of what comes next or what they like comes up it is shrugged off in favour of more melodrama. While Reinhart provides an impressive take on teenage grief and the devestating effect of stalled development, the little moments of enjoyment feel disingenuous because things like dreams, desires and interests seem superfluous to the lives of these intentionally self destructive archetypes. The concept that these buried layers of Grace are unimportant to Tanne’s story is ironic considering its a film entirely consumed with death and loss.

When we are finally introduced to something outside of depression and pain it is only used to serve some sort of fake therapeutic concept. A simple pastime of Henry’s, the fixing of broken ceramics with gold paint doesn’t so much scream leisure activity but instead feels like a clumsy analogy for how he is trying to fix yet another broken thing. Tanne points this out forgetting that this is a 17 year old kid and sometimes, a hobby can just be a hobby. Just because I’m writing this review doesn’t mean I’m trying to emotionally justify having watched Tanne’s film. This unpleasantly shoehorned ‘poetry’, the kind designed to point out that Grace is just another broken thing degrades this story and the people in it.The constant mist, gloomy woodlands and unpleasant character beats don’t help matters.

Full of seemingly poignant sermonising, Chemical Hearts doesn’t feel like a coming of age story at all, thanks to an unrelenting ignorance to the fact that these two are even students at all, besides the school paper that brings them together. A tale about the impact of first loves doesn’t feel the need to authenticate the experience by fully rounding out the world and expectations of two people whose high school experience never feels like more than a footnote in a paper thin story.

While its easy to point to what doesn’t work here with a script too consumed with darkness to actually see the light glimmering through the small town, New Jersey trees, it does feature a compelling performance by Reinhart that makes the experience more than worth watching but you would be forgiven for finding Chemical Hearts to be an empty experience outside of that one impressive feature. While it’s possible to tell a story about depression, about loss or about just learning about heartbreak, Chemical Hearts tries to whittle its story down into manageable chunks that it barely resembles a journey at all.

TSR

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