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Austin Abrams as Henry Page and Lili Reinhart as Grace Town in Chemical Hearts.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

  • Chemical Hearts
  • Written and directed by Richard Tanne
  • Starring Austin Abrams and Lili Reinhart
  • Classification R; 93 minutes

Rating:

2.5 out of 4 stars


Boy meets girl – and then, if you have any hope of a plot, some impediment emerges to their relationship. The tragic nature of that impediment is key to Chemical Hearts, a teen romance admirably more serious than the usual fare. Indeed, it’s a film that considers young heartbreak so earnestly, it risks taking itself too seriously, too.

For his second feature, Richard Tanne, who did the Obama biopic Southside with You, turns to the young adult novel by Krystal Sutherland for a story about a mysterious girl too traumatized to love. The film unspools from the point of view of Henry (Austin Abrams), a literate nerd who has been appointed editor of his school newspaper in some leafy New Jersey suburb. He’s got two sidekicks (Kara Young, C.J. Hoff) but has never had a girlfriend. Enter Grace (Lili Reinhart), a transfer student from another school who has been touted as a writer but will now only edit.

Austin Abrams played a similar brainy-teen role in Ben Stiller's movie Brad’s Status.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Grace is standoffish and offers no explanation for her heavy metal cane, but Henry gradually learns the nature of her injuries and she gradually thaws. In Tanne’s hands, the story is neatly told with revelations nicely paced, but the director plays his symbolism heavily, culminating in a scene where Grace appears Ophelia-like in an abandoned industrial pool. Henry, meanwhile, has an unusual hobby: He practises the Japanese art of kintsugi, repairing broken ceramics with gold seams. In case you didn’t get it, Grace herself tells him she’s not one of his shattered pots.

Younger viewers will know the reliable Abrams from his various series (Euphoria, Walking Dead), while older ones might remember that in a similar brainy-teen role he was the best thing about the 2017 Ben Stiller movie Brad’s Status. Here, Henry’s gentle confusion might be insufferable were it not for the actor’s subtle work expressing the inevitable rise and fall of an anxious young man’s painfully low expectations.

Lili Reinhart moves her character Grace from monosyllabic recalcitrance to tearful hurt.Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The casting of Reinhart (who also gets an executive producer credit) is more problematic. The rising star is a classic blond girl-next-door – after all, she plays Betty on Riverdale! – where a more idiosyncratic ingénue, and perhaps a genuinely disabled actor, might deepen the role. Here, Reinhart simply moves Grace from monosyllabic recalcitrance to tearful hurt, and the film becomes less convincing as it progresses. Viewers may also sense a vast social gap between Henry the ink-stained wretch and Grace the former track star who was dating a football hero, but Tanne chooses to avoid a critique of the hierarchies that can make high school so miserable.

The director’s choices are often worthy but debatable: One of them is to avoid any hint of teen comedy to emphasize the legitimacy of adolescent troubles. There’s a scene where Henry’s older sister, who has recently been dumped, explains to her brother that love is a form of dopamine and he will now suffer withdrawal. Her scientific analysis of his heartbreak is amusingly tactless, but the scene is played entirely straight. The film also includes a subplot about a lesbian couple who get together after some minor misunderstanding, as if to remind us of the simple teen romance Tanne is definitely not making.

Henry has heard some line somewhere to the effect that adults are just scarred kids lucky enough to make it out of teenage limbo alive. Sounds like a joke, but Chemical Hearts is dead serious.

Chemical Hearts is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video starting Aug. 21

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