Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.
Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña
Director: Richard Tanne
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many. By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video. Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads. It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors. It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.
So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams. An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring. This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience. He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process. His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection. That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage. During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.
We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception. That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop. That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre. Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.
What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward. Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders. That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it. With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes. Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them. That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.
Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them. Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end. There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.